Beneath layers of fleece, we huddle together to hear the legend of Switzerland's Devil Bridge. The story goes that the steep Schöllenen Gorge had blocked access to the Gotthard Pass and locals were becoming frustrated trying to build a mule trail and stone bridge.
Desperate, the mayor called out "then let the devil build the bridge."
Shortly thereafter, the devil appeared and responded, "I will build you a bridge but the first to cross it will belong to me!"
The locals agreed and three days later a stone bridge over the Schöllenen Gorge was completed. Eager for his reward, the devil waited to see who would cross the bridge. But rather than sending someone over, the locals sent a goat.
Furious, the devil launched a massive rock at the bridge but he was distracted by a cross carved into it and missed his target. The "devil's stone" instead landed near Göschenen where it remains today.
Passing the devil's stone on a chilly Saturday morning on our way to this bridge, Matt Anderson sets the scene for 14 of his students — primarily expats hailing from Holland, Italy, the UK and the US. We will hike 5 km along Old Gotthard Road from Andermatt to Göschenen on a photography excursion.
Today's focus? For the advanced students, the excursion is dedicated to landscape photography, specifically, high-dynamic-range techniques and slow shutter speed to give water shots silkiness. Before focusing on each technique, Matt gives a brief overview of the technique before spending a few hours individually helping everyone explore the mountain region.
For me and a few of the others, we hover in the beginner category. And instead of working to slow our shutter speed, we focus on using our digital camera in manual mode while exploring the bridge's little red devil through the camera lens, and scurrying over boulders to capture waterfalls breaking the Reuss river's mirror reflection.
An English safe haven
Matt's road toward photography teacher and Swiss explorer was not direct. Launching his career as a photojournalist, Matt moved into the outdoor arena when he took a sabbatical to work as a mountain guide for the American Alpine Institute and earn a master's degree in teaching.
Years later, he relocated to Switzerland and in late-2011 took the director's reins of Winterthur's Viewfinder Center — an English-speaking photography learning center — with his wife Dagmar Anderson at the office helm.
Combining his photography skills and background in education, today nearly 85 percent of his students are expats looking to hone their photography skills and meet new people with the help of an English-language safety net.
"The expat community is really busy Monday to Friday, and many do not have enough time during the week to plan for the weekend," Matt explains. "These excursions give students a chance to see events and places in Switzerland that they might not necessarily see."
Wrestling and cows
In a bid to break down some of the language and culture barriers that exist between the local community and expats, Matt has ramped up the center's excursion programing.
His approach to using photography as an introductory tool for expats to explore Switzerland is similar to the approach his wife employed when he moved here in 2008.
"I wanted to show him why we are like we are," Dagmar explains. "I wanted the opportunity to show him Switzerland though my eyes."
So on Saturday mornings throughout the year, photography students from all over Switzerland meet at the Zurich main station, pile into a silver van and explore their new home.
Through the camera lens, students experience Schwingen — a traditional form of wrestling where Judo-like moves are used to flip opponents upside down in the sawdust ring. There is also a trip to an Alpabfahrt (known as a "désalpe" in the Romandie), a day when cows adorned with flowers and bells parade through the streets on their descent from the summer's Alpine grazing fields. In January the van heads to Appenzell for the colorful Alter Sylvester — a New Year's Eve celebration in accordance with the Julian calendar.
"Really, it doesn't get better than Switzerland when pointing your camera," says Matt. "I'm in hog heaven."
In addition to Swiss events, students have the opportunity to head abroad with Dagmar and Matt for a photography vacation or to simply step into the safety of the Winterthur center for a series of classes ranging from the basics of getting to know your camera to a six-month advanced course.
Regardless of your photography ambitions, Dagmar and Matt's approach to exploring Switzerland is a lesson expats can take with them. Whether you're snapping shots of a devil and his pitchfork or dusting off your journal to take notes, unique experiences abound. Just pack layers and a bit of flexibility.
For more information on photography courses and excursions visit www.viewfindercenter.com
Photos top to bottom: © Alex Keunig;© Alex Keunig;© Ashley Roque; © Peter Adams