Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland


with one comment

Ask me in any depth about my photography and I will quickly begin gushing about Adobe Lightroom, the workflow program I use. In the dark times before Lightroom, I had an immovable and growing backlog of digital photos to cull, edit and organise. I liked shooting, but the inefficiency of my post-processing workflow prevented me from having a satisfying, holistic view of my collection of photos, and precluded technical and thematic reflections on my older photos. For example, if I wanted to recall all of my photos of Eileen and see which one looks best when converted to black-and-white, it involved a one-by-one search of file names and tags, to then convert each one individually to black-and-white.

Adobe Lightroom changed my workflow overnight. It allows me to name and edit the photos in batches, and then to organise them in several ways, for example with tags, ratings, colour codes, etc. Boring to the non-photo-geek perhaps, but picture me at my computer, smiling because I have caught up with my backlog of editing, and now have a well organised catalogue, from which I can instantly recall, for example: all of my photos of Eileen; those I shot in 2010; or those I rated with five stars.

As an exercise for myself, I employed Lightroom’s recall functions to create an after-the-fact collection from among my photos, using an arbitrary tag word. I chose “signs,” as in the various types of flat panels that hang from walls, posts and above doorways. In their intended function, signs are frequent but unremarkable elements in our line of sight: predictable shapes, solid colours and simple messages that identify an organisation, convey public information or forbid certain behaviours. It would not occur to me to shoot a survey of the different signs I see in my daily life – how boring!

But Lightroom allowed me to recall all of my photos of signs that caught my eye for a reason other than their intended function, for example: they were ironic or funny; or they combined with other visual elements to create an unexpected pattern. I shot each photo without connecting it to the others, but can nonetheless assemble them into a collection because I had applied the tag word “sign” to each one when sorting them in Lightroom.

Below I have arranged the impromptu collection of sign photos according to the signs’ intended functions:

  • “Look over here” signs identify or promote a business or organisation.
  • “Here you are” signs situate the reader.
  • “Do this. But don’t do that” signs attempt to control behaviours.
  • “For your information” signs seek to communicate information, whether for the benefit of the audience or the communicator.
  • Appropriated signs began with one function, but were changed by someone to serve a different function.

Although I organised the images by the intended functions of the signs they depict, I explain how I came to photograph each sign for reasons that rarely refer to their purpose.

“Look over here”

When I visited Russia in 1999, I was struck by how different it looked from countries in Western Europe. Ironically, the familiar colour and logo of the Macdonald’s sign, when written in Cyrillic script, seemed one of the more striking examples of different-ness.


It is unfair to pick on this Swiss politician for his name, but it provides amusing confirmation that, wherever you go, politics attracts a certain character of person:

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

The following photo gives an unintended inside-out perspective of a sign: an outward view over the Vietnamese city of Dong Xoai, through a hotel sign that attempts to draw looks in the reverse direction.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

I don’t remember what this advertisement in Neuchâtel was selling, but I hope the agent who placed a copy of it near the Hotel Beaulac enjoyed a laugh at this line of sight.


In 1885, workers in Canada completed the transcontinental railway. Also in engineering news that year, Escher Wyss of Zurich sold several turbines to the city of Geneva for its new hydroelectric and pumping station on the Rhône River, called the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices.


Signs change with the times, and the City of Geneva has repurposed the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices from a hydroelectric station to a theatre and concert hall. The transition included adopting the hip acronym BFM and designing new signs. The following sign is in the cavernous backstage of the main concert hall:


The neon lighting tube was invented in Europe, but businesses and sign makers in Asia have long since dominated the neon sign marketplace. Here is a line of neon signs advertising girly bars alongside the Patpong night market in Bangkok:

Kris Terauds, all rights reserved

In the following photo of La Gran Antilla café in Camagüey, Cuba, the unilluminated neon sign and the flaking facade illustrate the economic hardship faced by Cubans:


“Here you are”

When I visited Latvia in 1999, my young cousins Ulla and Janis gave me a tour of the area around their house in Sigulda. We appropriated this sign on the edge of Turaida village for me to shoot an amusing photo of them skipping town:


Hiking in the Swiss Alps is fantastic, not only for the spectacular scenery, but also because the trails are marked with easy-to-follow yellow signs. Here is a stitched panoramic photo from Sefinenfurgge pass showing both of these attractions: left-to-right views from the Kandertal to the Lötschental valleys in the Bernese Oberland, with a helpful yellow sign indicating the different routes and walking times (click for a larger copy).

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

I included the dark street sign in the following photo simply as a visual and tonal anchor to the other, more interesting shapes and tones.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

Since the mid-1990s in Europe, a treaty called the Schengen Agreement dismantled most border controls when crossing between member nations. Switzerland only implemented it in 2008, bringing the Schengen slumber to its border posts. Here is a forgotten customs post on the French side of the Versoix River, near Geneva:

  Copyright Kris Terauds 2010

Mt. Kinabalu is a 4,000-metre mountain that rises from the jungle on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo. Climbing the mountain requires no particular mountaineering training or gear, so it is accessible to anyone with a minimum level of fitness. When Eileen and I climbed it in 2008, we found that the climb and the scenery were almost secondary experiences next to seeing the range of lowland Malays who had chosen to attempt the climb. Along with a 2h00 start time and a strenuous uphill walk, the climb is windy, cold and dark as you ascend the upper slopes of Kinabalu. Many lowlanders overestimated their fitness or underestimated the cold, and we came across one after another of them in the dark, huddled on the side of the trail. At the summit, I waited in line for my summit photo, which was again of secondary interest next to the characters posing for their photos, so different from those I typically meet in the high mountains. In the following photo, the two standing guys are posing for their summit photos as they curse the cold, while the seated fellow primps in preparation for his photo.

Kris Terauds, all rights reserved

In 2007, Eileen and I enjoyed a great hiking tour in and around the Rockies. In Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, she made the mistake of standing too close to this amusing sign, which indicates the direction of a minor peak in the area:


Over the past few years, Burma has emerged from isolation, which I hope will lead to its citizens leading better lives and participating in the international community. I visited the country twice in 1999-2000, when the political situation was still pretty grim. Nonetheless, the ruling military junta at the time was keen to attract dollar-bearing tourists to the country, so had made slipshod efforts to spruce up a few of the country’s main tourist attractions, including the famous Strand Road in Rangoon.


“Do this. But don’t do that”

A boring do-not-enter sign in Singapore’s Chinatown is contrasted by a clothier’s attempt to display his wares.

Chinatown, Singapore, 2003

This sign on the Pont Saint-Louis in Paris forbids boats on the Seine River from doing something – drifting slightly to the left? – but from this angle it directs attention to the dome of the Pantheon:


In Deià, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, this sign looks new, but its symbology seems obsolete:


At first glance, the messages on this sign appear to be schizophrenic: “no dogs; respect the children.” A little intuition is enough to imagine the context, but the prohibition is clumsily justified. Wouldn’t “no dogs” suffice?


This sign protects a patch of grass near our previous apartment in Geneva. We don’t have a dog, so the sign does not apply to us, but each time we passed it, we admired the workmanship of the dog drawing. In fact, the drawing is so lifelike that it could undermine its purpose: a dog owner could argue that the sign does not prohibit all dogs, but only handsome German Shepherds.


For me, an image of an arms-raised man is not an effective illustration of “do not cross the tracks.” But it was the converging lines of the tracks and wires – contrasted with the perpendicular lines of the man’s arms – that attracted me to this shot.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

Even more so than our civic space, organised religion is heavy with “don’t” messages. When I shot the following photo, I was definitely not thinking so deeply as to compare secular with sacred. But I did find it ironic that, in front of the high golden domes of Geneva’s Russian Orthodox Church, a house rich with ceremony, mysticism and morality, the most visible message was “no dogs.”


Although written in English, the “stop” sign is adopted as an international norm by many non-English-speaking countries, such as France. Other countries such as Malaysia decided to keep the symbol, but translate the text into their majority language, as shown in the following photo. As an aside, Canada must be one of the only countries to have “stop” signs in two languages, as the province of Quebec uses “arrêt” signs.

Kris Terauds, all rights reserved

“For your information”

I do not read Khmer, but a Cambodian friend told me that this mural encourages women to practice safe sex, so as to avoid illnesses such as HIV, and to enjoy a happy family life. The mural is directed at a Khmer audience, but was funded by UN agencies and was painted on the side of one of the crumbling apartment blocks in Phnom Penh that were originally built for Russian embassy staff. For me, the mural’s message and context incorporated a number of the internal and external challenges facing Cambodia.


The rule of Burma’s former military junta was violent, sinister, corrupt and arbitrary. They therefore enjoyed no legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Burmese citizens. Yet although they could have no illusions about winning over the population, the generals did not feel secure enough to rule in isolation. They felt compelled to propagandise to the Burmese population through state-controlled media, including billboards. The following photo shows one of the “People’s Desire” billboards that stood next to major intersections. The billboard’s message lacks the elegance and subtlety of effective propaganda: instead of charming its audience, it reveals the regime’s paranoia and ruthlessness. But its unwritten message is clear: “we do not trust you; we are watching you; we will destroy any opposition.”


The next sign illustrates in vivid green the different species of fauna that inhabit a tiny nature preserve in Chambésy:


Information in foreign languages can be funny when translated!


I wonder: at zoos, do people spend more time reading the informational signs describing the animal in the cage, or looking at the animal itself?


In hilly places I have lived such as BC and Switzerland, road signs indicating inclines are commonplace. But in the following photo, it is not motorists paying attention to the sign, but spectators of the Tour de France, looking for the steepest hill of the day’s stage.


The following sign indicates the back entrance of the Geneva Mosque, which is reserved for women:


Eileen and I visited Arles with her parents a few days before Easter in 2012. When we visited the city’s Roman arena, we discovered that they were preparing for the traditional Easter bullfights, which I had witnessed back in 1999.


The following sign was one of a series in Switzerland that encouraged cyclists to illuminate themselves when riding at night:


I found the following sign disturbing when it appeared in Geneva in 2010-11. It advertised a martial arts studio by depicting a cornered-looking boy in a defensive stance. I can’t remember whether it advertised karate or kung fu, or the name of the studio, but I remember the hunted look of the poor boy.


A considerable portion of Swiss voters, mainly represented by right-of-centre political parties, are sceptical of immigration and of immigrants. The advertisement in the following photo belongs to the UDC, the most popular political party across Switzerland’s different layers of government. Immigrant Eileen seems unimpressed.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

Translation is a tricky business. This cautionary sign in Turkey is clear, despite a hint of the abstract.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

Informational signs need not always reflect mundane facts; they can convey imagined or desired states. Whether or not the vision of the building on the sign below was genuine, the reality for the building and its occupants was different.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

Information is abstract and changes more easily than the static signs that attempt to portray it. When information changes enough, it can doom obsolete signs. The following price board for latex was discarded on the grounds of a rubber processing plant in Dong Phu commune, Vietnam.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2011

Prudence be damned, let’s feed the ducks!


In the West, Japanese culture is viewed as sublime. As much as the content, it is the presentation that is well received. Whether or not you like rice and raw fish, sushi looks pretty cool. Ditto for this image from a temple in Kyoto: whatever the sign says, it hums when placed on raked sand.

Kris Terauds, all rights reserved

I visited the Columbia Icefield in Canada’s Jasper National Park in 1992. During that visit, I noticed that the park service had placed year markers to illustrate the retreat of the Athabasca Glacier, but the intended effect did not stay with me. When I returned with Eileen in 2007, I stopped at the 1992 marker and gaped at the 300 metres of dry, exposed scree between the sign and the toe of the glacier.


Appropriated signs

When my young cousin Andrik visited us in Switzerland, he and I walked from along the “Swiss Riviera” from Vevey to Montreux. On the way, we came across this drastic appropriation: a sign describing a family friendly beach was commandeered by the Swiss military as a base from which to patrol the approaches to Montreux, which was hosting the Summit of the Francophonie.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2010

I appreciate the simplicity of the following appropriation. The perpetrator gave the sign character with only a face and some Speedos. But other than comedy, the meaning remains a mystery to me.

Copyright Kris Terauds 2010

As I reflected on each photo and its caption, I realised that my attraction to this unplanned, Lightroom-enabled collection of sign photos was not only my satisfaction at a well organised, retrievable catalogue of photos. But it also seemed to hint at the influence my subconscious exerts on my photography. Although I did not consciously shoot a photo portfolio of signs, I have obviously stopped over the years to shoot these signs for one reason or another. Chicken or egg? Are signs just one of many elements that randomly attract my attention, or do I have a subconscious project in my head, to find and shoot signs as effective subjects to express other themes? Perhaps Adobe knows?


Written by Kris Terauds

June 9, 2013 at 14:07

Posted in Photography

Tagged with ,

One Response

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  1. I would hazard a guess that the last sign was “Men Only Swimming Area.” I wuz gonna blog about my work with my 1953 Ansco box camera, but you seem to have things well in hand! Mike

    Mike Palmer

    June 14, 2013 at 22:34

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