Last week in Hamburg, the annual swan transport took place – all the swans that live on the Alster were rounded up and taken to their winter home, a northern spur off the river where an artificial current keeps the water from freezing over. Swans need water in order to survive, so for hundreds of years Hamburgers have been making sure they can access it through the most frigid months of the year.
Hamburg has a long history with swans. When it became independent around 1400, Hamburg adopted the graceful waterfowl as a symbol of its new status. Previously, swans were only owned by counts, dukes or kings. Now they belonged to all the citizens of Hamburg, a living embodiment of the new republican city.
As early as April 6th, 1674, Hamburg assigned the task of caring for the swans to one person. A senate protocol in the city archives cites the specific need to watch the eggs to keep boys from stealing them. Today this tradition continues in the role of the Swan Father, a city employee who oversees the swan transport every November. His official title is “district hunting master” and he actually oversees the safety and control of all wildlife that wanders into Hamburg year round: seals that swim too far up the Elbe, wild boars that appear in the city parks and even deer that get lost in the giant maze of containers that makes up the huge city harbor. But it’s mainly the swans that keep him busy and what he’s most famous for, as hundreds of people come to watch the fall round up -a public event that’s become a sure sign that winter is on its way.
So I went to Hamburg and filmed the transport, using it as an opportunity to try out some new equipment and just get out behind a camera again. It was a long, cold day but with my friend Simon’s help we managed to capture the whole process –from the boats herding the swans into a lock, the Swan Father and team grabbing the swans out of the water, binding their wings and feet and putting them into two small motor boats, and then the whole flotilla traveling north to their winter home. I was also able to get a longer interview with the Swan Father and my hope is to make a short film about his unique work and the transport.
Many thanks to Simon, without whom I couldn’t have done the shoot. At one point as we were standing above the lock where the swans were being gathered, my camera and tripod almost fell over onto the boats. They would have hit and probably killed some of the bound swans patiently waiting in the bows for the transport to begin. Luckily, Simon was able to grab the tripod before this happened, preventing us from becoming front page news ourselves since there were dozens of journalists standing at the ready with their cameras.
Also many thanks to Anne and family, with whom I stayed during the shoot and made me feel very much at home!