Recently, I was asked by my friend Anouschka to contribute something to her creative online platform, LitCafe (a brilliant initiative, where writers, artists, philosophers and other creative minds meet). As the theme for October was “Déja Vu”, I thought I’d write a short essay about my ever-ongoing self-portrait series: why I do it, why I call it art, and how it helps me see the world differently. It’s available to read here.
I’d had the date marked on my calendar for weeks: 16 and 17 September, Market Garden weekend. On 17 September, 1944, many a Dutch citizen in the south of the country looked up to the sky to see ‘falling angels’, aka Allied paratroopers, taking part in the largest airborne operation of the entire war.
While on holiday in Yorkshire last month, my friends and I decided to go up to Newcastle for the day. I didn’t know much about the city, except that it was at the heart of the industrial revolution in Britain and that it’s where Dire Straits singer Mark Knopfler is from. In fact, while making my way to Yorkshire from Wales – where I started out, visiting friends – I found myself on a whistle-stop tour through the north of England, passing through Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds before ending up in York. My impression of these cities was all too brief: driving through Birmingham, which was heavily bombed during the war, left me with the impression of a hodgepodge of soot-stained red brick buildings with garish postwar structures planted here and there. Newcastle, however, surprised me: I had expected more of the same. But the moment we passed that magnificent sculpture on the motorway, the Angel of the North, which personifies better than anything the north’s industrial charm, and drove into the city with a view of Newcastle’s seven bridges curving over the river Tyne, I knew we were in for something different.
As the temperatures are finally consistently running into the high twenties Celsius here, it’s funny to think that only about two months ago I was walking around in Riga in a snowstorm – granted, one that only lasted a day. We went out then, on Easter Sunday, thinking we might do some sightseeing, but ended up frantically hunting around for a coffee place to take shelter in. And as we sat sipping a cappuccino and nibbling on a poppy-seed doughnut at the foot of an imposing Russian orthodox church – the only proper ‘high rise’ in the centre of Riga, really – the sun came out and the snow stopped. Instantly the streets were filled with people, where only an hour before only a few arctic explorers like ourselves could be seen plodding along. Happily, the following days were filled with sunshine, and on the day we left, I carried my coat draped over my arm – it was that warm.
As opposed to the blink-and-you-miss-it blue twenty minutes we usually get here in the Netherlands — one of the best times of day for photographers, when the sun has just set and the combination of electric night lights and the still luminous sky makes for the most beautiful pictures — Helsinki was exceedingly generous with its opportunities for nighttime photography. Not only did the skies become a deeper and deeper blue much more gradually, the exceedingly modern architecture of the city almost gave it a sci-fi feel. Apparently Helsinki is famous for its starry nights, but sadly we didn’t witness any, although the clouds made for some spectacular skies as well.
Lately, in the context of Remembrance Day here in the Netherlands, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the different ways in which World War II is being remembered today. For us, being occupied by Nazi Germany during the war has become a foundation myth of our identity, and most Dutch novels, films, and even musicals (Soldier of Orange, based on the book of the same name) about the war centre around the two main protagonists in that myth: the evil collaborators and the virtuous members of the resistance. You can even pretend to be a member of the underground press in an escape room in Nijmegen, racing against the clock to escape discovery by the Nazis.
Last week I returned from a twelve-day holiday in the northeast of Europe, where I’d never been before. We flew to Helsinki, where we spent a few days; from there, we took the train to St. Petersburg; and finally, we took a night bus to Riga, from where we flew back home. It was a wonderful trip, presenting us with a side of Europe I’d never seen before.