A Film Noir Photo Essay on the Secretive World of Swiss Banks

The Vaults is a finely crafted multimedia experience of Mark Heneley's photographs of the Swiss banking sector in Zurich.

The Vaults is a finely crafted multimedia experience of Mark Heneley's photographs of the Swiss banking sector in Zurich. Anna Stevens of Panos Pictures taps film noir and James Bond movies for inspiration in her edit, which adds sound and text to create a story. Henley talks about the experience of shooting the series and why the mysterious industry begs investigation in an interview below.

The Atlantic: What inspired you to photograph the Swiss banking sector? 

Mark HenleySwiss banks are a pillar of Swiss society, but they are under pressure like never before. In the last few years there have been scandals, losses, bailouts, resignations, offices raided in several countries, bankers arrested in the US, as well as tighter regulation at home. On top of this, hallowed banking secrecy laws have been breeched, and with foreign governments increasing pressure to have access to assets hidden in Switzerland, the pressure is only increasing. When you consider the importance of the banks to the Swiss economy -- they are thought to hold as much as US$7,000 billion, with a third of all global offshore funds -- put together with a subject that is the stuff of global myths, in films and thrillers, and you have a subject that deserves closer attention -- and somewhat surprisingly there has been very little. I went to a UBS AGM out of sheer inquisitiveness, and was immediately caught.

Was access an issue? 

I thought it was at first but there are press conferences and shareholder meetings that one can go to. If you are free to do so without having to produce the kind of simple smile/frown of the CEO speaking or the stock shot with the company logo -- the images that newspapers tend to use in their economics pages -- then there is potentially quite a lot to see. One starts by thinking one needs to have a photo of the vaults, or the gold, and I did ask the Swiss National Bank to do that and they just laughed. After a while however I realized that the money or gold as physical objects are not so important. As a photographer rather than a banker or bank robber, it’s more about how it got there, and what it’s doing there, and if it’s going to stay there -- and those things you are just never going to see -- so it was more a question of finding the right language to talk about these issues, about a world under pressure. It’s the industry rather than the money that's interesting. That took six months to think through, and a switch to a somewhat somber black and white.

How did you create that hint of a film noir look in the images?

It’s the subject itself that lends itself to film noir -- the law governing banking secrecy dates back to 1934, and prospered nicely through the cold war, and this atmosphere of the past seems to echo throughout the industry. There is also a physical conservatism of outlook and manner, which means that around Paradeplatz you find people dressed just as if they had walked off the set of the Third Man (Vienna is not so far from Zurich ... though don't tell any Swiss I said that). Then there is the idea of secrecy. If one spends some time hanging around outside a bank, sooner or later the security is going to get interested, and rather than men with guns and scowls, in Switzerland, it’s usually polite gentlemen in suits, who make jokes about just wanting to check that I didn't want to rob the bank. Thoughts of bank robberies and all the men in hats just led to film noir -- especially as Swiss banks have so many walk on parts in movies.

I thought it would be interesting to try to make a multimedia piece as an experiment, to see if one could make economic issues interesting to a broader public, and so the idea was to make it like a trailer for a movie that doesn't actually exist -- and Anna Stevens at Panos did a brilliant job of playing with that, finding the music and sounds, and creating the rhythm of the piece, having spent quite a lot of time looking at film noir archetypes. I think the hardest thing was trying to find the context for one essential figure of all film noir -- the femme fatale -- in such a male dominated world. She is there, just, a fictional figure coming just before the end, as if it was her and not a US$2.3 billion trading loss in London that brought the downfall (resignation) of UBS CEO Oswald Grübel, himself the eminence gris of the Swiss banking world. 

What's next for you?

I have recently relocated to Geneva and would like to continue the banking work there -- It's much more centered around private banks from all over the world, British, French, American, Arab -- even the Bank of China has just set up shop here. I'd also like to turn the work into an exhibition and a book. Ideally I'd love to show the photos on Paradeplatz itself.

I also do also have a new project but as it is still just in my head and not yet on film I'd rather keep it under one of those bankers hats, or in “the Vaults,” for now.

For more work by Mark Henley, visit http://markhenley.photoshelter.com/. For more work by Panos Pictures, visit http://www.panos.co.uk/.