Street paper vendors star in hit book portraying “an authentic and intimate view of poverty in Switzerland”

Homeless and formerly-homeless vendors of Surprise take centre stage and open up about their lives in a hit book that is raising money to support the Swiss street paper and its vendors.

Standort Strasse – Menschen in Not nehmen das Heft in die Hand [Location: the Street – People in need write their own script] was written by Basel-based journalist Olivier Joliat, with striking portrait photos by Matthias Willi.

The pair are best known for interviewing rock stars, including Metallica, Muse and Queens of the Stone Age for previous book The Moment After the Show – but Olivier said the vendors’ stories were more captivating.

Surprise vendors Domenico Billari and Ghide Gherezgihier Photo by: Matthias Willi

“As a freelance journalist I’m interested in people and good stories,” he explained. “The vendors have more interesting and important stuff to tell than some of the musicians.

“I learned a lot from the vendors. Especially how open and forward-looking they are despite the tough situations they have to handle.”

A celebration of the many ways that Surprise has helped people, Standort Strasse features 20 of their vendors. Since the book launched in September, its stars have been signing autographs at events in Basel, Zürich and Bern.

Like many street papers, Surprise regularly features interviews with their vendors. Standort Strasse brings together 20 of the best vendor profiles from the magazine, then follows each of them up with a new interview to show how the vendors’ lives have changed.

Olivier read through 18 years’ worth of Surprise to pick out the interviews for the book. “It was not easy,” he said. “20 stories sounds like a lot. But once you have read all the more than 400 old portraits it’s hard to focus only on 20. There are too many interesting life stories.”

Surprise vendors Steve Meyer, Marion & Fritz Antonenko, and Miklos Lakatos Photos: Matthias Willi

Then he had the challenge of tracking the old vendors, many of whom have moved on thanks to Surprise, and some of whom have sadly passed away.

“I checked with all the Surprise workers from Switzerland what the vendors do nowadays. Sometimes it was hard to find some old vendors again. Some passed away, some contacts just got lost over the years.”
Olivier says he was keen to show the successes of Surprise – but not to shy away from the reality of life for vendors. His aim was to portray “an authentic and intimate view of poverty in Switzerland.”

He elaborated: “It’s not only about ‘succesful’ stories. Death is part of Surprise as well. So, instead of a new portrait there’s also an obituary for long-time vendor Kurt Brügger, who was very close to Surprise and worked in the office too. He fell back into drugs when he was over 60 years old.

“The vendors don’t deserve pity but respect. I wanted to let them tell their stories and how proud they are (with good reason) to have improved their lives.”

Current Surprise vendors can sell copies of Standort Strasse on the streets alongside the magazine, keeping CHF 10 (£7 GBP / 9 Euro / $10 USD) of the CHF 37 cover price (£25 GBP / 35 Euro / $37 USD) or the book is also available online. Online shoppers have the chance to name a vendor to receive the profits of their purchase.

Surprise’s managing director, Paola Gallo, said: “The book is an homage to all the people that are in contact with Surprise – the vendors, the street soccer players, the singers in our choir, our tour guides. It’s important to show how their lives developed in unexpected ways and how Surprise was a part of it.

“Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow and this book shows how powerful changes can influence your life – negatively but also positively.”

Read an extract from the book, featuring Surprise’s ‘celebrity vendor’ Ruedi Kälin.

Standort Strasse is available to buy here.