Documenting a place

January 30, 2021


And why this is most likely to fail.

Documenting a place requires involvement, in this case also with people, simply because they live here. It’s a neighbourhood. One that is soon to disappear, to make space for a new street plan, with new houses that are larger, more comfortable, more expensive. Half of it is demolished already, the other half partly abandoned and sealed off, partly still inhabited. I find it difficult to stick my camera into the backyards of people still living here. It’s a working-class neigbourhood in Rotterdam Zuid. Gardens are shoddy, inventories are poor. I’m not working-class, it’s not my neighbourhood, I don’t know the people who live here. That complicates things. Also because this is not about individual stories, I’m mostly interested in this neighbourhood as an example of post war architecture, more specifically the garden village, and the lack of historical awareness in today’s city development. And also: how easily every sign of individualism is wiped away by clearing out gardens and boarding up windows. And what traces are left of lives spent in these homes. But photographing a process, if that’s what I’m doing, requires a sort of before and after. Or at least two faces of a current situation. It’s somewhat problematic not to include houses that are still inhabited, when photographing others that aren’t. Or perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s just telling only half the story. Or a different story. 

Documenting this place also requires a different way of looking at my own pictures. I feel that my perhaps rather simplistic idea of a good picture - one that satisfies my sense of harmony and control, a composition that feels right, colours that please me -, falls short when applying it to this place, this series. Perhaps any series, because they need pictures for the sake of the whole, while I’m used to taking pictures that only need to exist in their own universe. And I’m sort of in the dark about what, in this given context, makes for a good picture. Or even one that I’m pleased with.
Take this photo of the two windows. As a single picture I wouldn’t have taken it. I included it (for now) because I think it is an important part of the story. Or at least an element of the story that I find significant. It’s up for debate of course if this is the best execution possible. I suppose not. I don’t even know if it’s noticable, but the two windows, curtains and reflections included, are exactly the same. Which means they are not windows. They are photographs taken of windows, meant to make the deserted part of the neighbourhood look less grim. There are also painted curtains, but I like the ambivalence of the more real-life photographs.

Also, documenting a place that changes over time requires a long term interest. Evidence shows that I’m not particularly good at that. I’m interested in a lot of things, but not necessarily in a deep, profound or everlasting way. But even if I manage to hold on to my initial interest, the time span is problematic anyway. Along the way, I find myself distracted by new ideas about execution, form, content, focus, approach, processing. It’s difficult to accomplish consistency over time. The fact that this set is black and white, as opposed to the previous one that I took last summer, and cropped into a different aspect ratio, speaks for itself.  

Which is not to say it’s not worth the effort. If only for all of the above.