September 2012 – Amsterdam
Only a few weeks after the kiss-in at Hugo de Grootplein, I interviewed Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf at his home on beautiful Bloemgracht. People who know photography, they know his work. Others got to know him from the “kiss-in” he organized right in front of the donner shop where a few days ago he was asked to stop kissing his boyfriend. That was big news – in Holland a gay kiss was being persecuted. Erwin decided to take action and he mobilized a great number of supporters who gathered at the Hugo de Grootplein in protest, a few days after the incident.
I talked with him about the incident and the role of the media, about freedom of expression, about his art, his photography and his homosexuality. At the end I also asked him about the Dutch and the Greeks. This interview has never been published before.
Nikos Koulousios: You studied journalism. Has that helped you in your photography? Let’s say in choosing your subjects or in your effort to manage your publicity as a photographer?
Erwin Olaf: Certainly. The very first time I got publicity was in 1984 because then there was a group exhibition called “Photo 84”. In that I had pictures of bodybuilders but they were not nude, it was male nude parts. And then I came on the exhibition, the day of the opening and they took away my pictures. And that was the only time I really used my journalism because I saw an editor of the biggest newspaper in Holland, a colleague of mine, and went to him and said that they took away my pictures because the men are not nude. And then the next day there was an article in the paper and it was all over the news, all over the country and even outside of Holland. It was the first time that pictures were taken away from an exhibition because they were not provocative enough. Not extreme enough! So this was 1983-84 in the Netherlands. After that I never really used my background in journalism any more, not on purpose. It was the beginning of the 80’s then, now I don’t know anything any more, about how journalism works.
N: That was before the Chessmen?
E: Yes that was before the Chessmen. It was around 1980, I was still doing journalistic photography. So in a way I have worked as a journalist too, as a photo-journalist, which was my starting point.
N: What were you shooting as a photo-journalist?
E: There were demonstrations against nuclear weapons; there was a lot of unemployment at the time. But I was mostly photographing as an assistant of a photographer who worked in the field of education, and schools and I worked as a volunteer for the gay movement. Those were my first steps as a photo-journalist. And there was a lot of unemployment at the time, so I didn’t have a regular job. So I started to volunteer in the gay movement.
N: It’s really no wonder you are so involved in gay issues and other social issues. You started with that.
E: Yeah, but well, I have to say, after the “kiss-in” I have decided I never want to be involved anymore. I don’t like the mentality.
N: You mean after the incident?
E Yeah, the “spit-in”.
N: I read a lot about your style, the Olaf style, how easy or not was it to establish your own signature style, how easy or not is it to stand out with your own artistic identity – and is it something that you build up consciously, bit by bit, or you let life show you the way.
E: I follow my nose. I cannot do anything else than express myself the way I am. This has also to do with being involved in the gay movement. You know, at the beginning of the 80’s everybody was more involved, with volunteer jobs, demonstrating for a cause, because you wanted to make your life better, to make the position of the whole gay community better. That was the life-style, the mentality that many people had at that time. I am self-educated as a studio photographer. I am educated by some people around me who teach me that you have to express yourself, and I always thought, when I express myself I have to express those things that are worrying me or the things I am obsessed with. And so you see in my career every time my new obsession becomes my new theme, like sexuality…
N: Obsessions or themes to which you normally give a very short title, like Rain, Hope, Grief – what is it with the short titles? Are you a man of few words?
E: No, I talk a lot. Hahaha… I think a title should not be too complicated, so that you know in one instance what it is all about. I love short titles.
N: Is it true, you said in the past that if you had to pick a favorite out of all your work, it would be the Mature series.
E: That’s because Mature was a new starting point for me. Before the Mature series I was working mostly on assignments. My manager then, who was also very young, she said: “don’t you want to do your own work again?” I liked the idea. And that’s when I created Mature., which was inspired by the models. I was working a lot at that time with older people, awkward people, and then older women they were so fascinating because they had so much history, had so much fun, you could have so much fun with them, they were all like naughty jokes and puns.
N: When critics describe your work, these are the adjectives they all use, one way or another: elegant, avant-guard, rich in detail, sophisticated, intense, sexual and provocative. In your own biography it read that “you are visualising the unspoken, the overlooked”. Is it voyeuristic at all or is it just socially oriented? What is it that you want to uncover? What is it that you want people to see?
E: Hm… that’s the whole searching for myself. I don’t really know. I do most of the things I do on instinct. I don’t know why I am getting an idea. It’s just fascination for aesthetics. Or let’s say the general aesthetic is focused on this, and I want to look at it from the side, from the edge of it. So my studies where most of the times driven by technical photography, things like shadow, for example the shadow on a fat body. Or the skin. That can be a starting point. And then I combine it with something that intrigues me at the moment.
N: A story? Something about the model? Or about you maybe?
E: It’s always about me. It’s always a personal search. Like with Rain, I wanted to focus on the moment we think action and reaction. At that time I thought the society was still in shock after 9/11 and I thought what is interesting is that paralyzed moment after an action, which we have all in our private life, it can be very small. Even when somebody rings the bell, and I am sitting here reading. Before I hear the bell and react to it, there is that moment of emptiness. When your boyfriend says: “I ‘m breaking up with you, I don’t love you anymore”, before you react, before you start doing something, that numbing moment, really intrigues me.
N: And now? What are you working on now?
E: I have been working in Berlin for my latest series (Autumn 2012). It’s the first time I work on location, after many years of studio photography. The series is called Berlin and is about my fascination for the city and its architecture, it’s all inside- it’s never outside, it’s all inside buildings. And it has to do also with my fascination for the artists from the 1920’s, Otto Dix, George Grosz, who were big in Berlin, the Weimar years and all that,
N: The Weimar years…. Do you see any similarities with what is going on today?
E: Yeah, we are in the same kind of gap at the moment. But I wanted to have a connected theme as well, you know, you can do locations, you can study Otto Dix, the art of the Weimar republic, but then that’s not everything, that’s not enough. Then I was at the airport, I travel quite a lot, and I saw some Dutch children who were taking a lot of space playing, shouting, screaming, being the boss. For a few years now I have this theme in my head, how children are taking over our world. Because the parents are expanding their own personality by giving the children unlimited freedom, and children don’t know of course how to handle such power, that amount of freedom. And so my series, Berlin, has a theme, which is the “power of the child”. It is exaggerated of course, but I wanted to have a narrative, to tell a story, I didn’t want to photograph only interiors in Berlin connected with the Weimar Republic. That’s too thin for me, because I am a story-teller.
N: What is fascinating for me is how you start from one starting point, Berlin, and then you deviate, or side-track to your parallel theme which is children, and it has nothing really to do with Berlin any more, Berlin becomes just a mere setting, it could be any other city from that point on. It’s like building a story within the story.
E: What fascinates me is the new story. It turned out to be a nightmare, the youth over-powering the grown ups. Or wisdom over-powered by ignorance. It also has to do with the so-called freedom we the Dutch thought we had as a liberal country.
N: So you think that art ought to have a social message or an intention, other than just the artistic one? Is there any kind of art but the controversial art?
E: Well, at the moment you have an enormous amount of commercial art. Because people make a big living out of it and you cannot risk that with being controversial. You know, I don’t want to be controversial just for the sake of being controversial. You want to express yourself; you want to say something that is worrying you, that excites you. That is a very private kind of emotion.
N: Isn’t it important for an artist to break new ground, clash with a few norms or old values, to find his place in the world?
E: Yes, but if you do that as a starting point, I think it’s wrong. If it comes along with what you are expressing, that’s fine. But you cannot sit at home and say: “Now I will make something controversial!” Not all of my series are controversial. In series Fall I am fascinated by the blink of an eye, the shortest moment in photography, from which you can create the longest moments of photography. I also made this installation called “Key-hole” for which I made a film in which I am studying the choreography of body-language and if you look through a key hole you can interpret body language in different ways. For example the same scene, where a child can be seen, could be interpreted as caring for a child or as doing something inappropriate to a child, you know… And that may be controversial, but this is something I have to explore, and it’s not that I want to make it controversial; I just want to explore that theme.
N: So when you start working on a new project, you don’t always start with a certain message in your head, with a clear intention of saying something specific.
E: No. No.
N: The message will come along eventually as a product, a result of the creative process.
E: Yes and sometimes when it’s already finished, you look at it and you think “hm… this is quite heavy!” When I finished my series Clowns and I saw it in its entirety, I thought it was a very mean kind of series. Sinister almost… I tried to use women as a metaphor for innocence and Clowns as a metaphor for all that is evil. But many people saw something different in it. They thought I like to show women being raped. I told them to look twice at it. If people want to see bad things in it, they will see bad things in it, no matter what I say or create. So I stopped explaining my work to others.
N: Nudity – it seems that it is always there, always prominent in your work.
E: The body is beautiful! The human body is fantastic!
N: You mention the installation Key-hole before, there is this notion of voyeurism; you want to know what is going on behind closed doors?
E: There is always an element of voyeurism; this observing element is why I chose this job of a photographer for myself. But besides that, if you see the human skin, it is so rare, it is unique in the world of animals… you know most of the times is nearly hairless or completely hairless, which is something you don’t find easily in nature. We only know the nude dog, the hairless dog. The human skin gives a beautiful reflection of light and shadow.
N: So it’s like a canvas.
E: It’s a canvas yeah. And it makes people look vulnerable or very strong. For example, when they stare into the camera and they are completely nude, that can have a very strong message. And then you have sexuality which is important in our lives.
N: Do you think you are considered controversial because you work so much with nudity?
E: It’s fascinating… in the last 30 years, since Robert Mapplethorpe died… you know, I grew up in the 80’s with Mapplethorpe and Joel-Peter Witkin. One of the first exhibitions I saw here in Amsterdam was that of Peter Witkin. And Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the first photographers I saw. Nowadays times have changed… photographers are hiding the nude body, the human body. The nipples of the woman, the pussy and the dick are forbidden zones only in the last 40-50 years. If you look into art, from the Greek, the Roman until now, it was always in nude. Why should the nude body be used exclusively for pornography? Why should you categorize it as such? Because you can sell it better and make money. It’s an economic factor, to make us feel ashamed. That’s why the Anglo-Saxons are so much ashamed. It has to do with economics. If sex is shameless, you cannot earn money out of it.
N: Does being gay define you as a photographer?
E: Being gay defines you as a human being. And it has a certain influence in your free work, yes. But if I photograph for a client, then I cannot let it influence my work. I have to be professional. But it is, of course, a big part of who I am. And as you have seen in the last few weeks with the gay kiss-in, I am reduced in the media as just being gay, as if I don’t work, as if gay is what I do. I am always gay. And you see how hated gays still are, by the white, established, fat men over the age of 30 – and not by the foreigners, or the allochtonen, as some Dutch people are claiming.
N: Who are your icons? Who inspires you?
E: At the moment I have to find some new icons. Because it seems to me that I love dead photographers better then alive ones ha ha ha… I mean my absolute icons are now dead. Besides Mapplethorpe and Witkn, I would say photographers who have influenced me are Horst P Horst, George Platt Lynes, Richard Avedon, Ben Burfitt. But nowadays I get a lot of inspiration from paintings. Documenting art photography is tired, it is repeating and repeating itself. On the other hand with stage photography, which I am part of, you have to make sure that you are not too slick, too photoshopped, too glamorous. So my inspiration is more in paintings and in films. In my early years I was inspired by Fellini and Visconti. And they are still a huge source of inspiration for me. For example my interest is in everything that is rare and strange. Also in my life, long before I was introduced to these photographers, I was intrigued by the rare. I had an aunt that had fat feet. And I was mesmerized looking at her feet. And when I came out, when I was 17-18, I went out for the first time and there was a little girl, a midget, and I was fascinated by her. And there was also a girl with a burn mark on her neck. You know the night life attracts all people that are rare.
N: How do you like Diane Arbus then? Some of your work reminds me of her… the dwarfs for example.
E: Her perspective is more journalistic, as in a documentary, and I always want to translate reality into my own dream world. Into my surreal dream. That is my connection with Fellini.
N: And what about your video work. Do you see video as the evolution of your previous work? Moving from photo camera into film. Or are you just experimenting?
E: It is an experiment. A photographic exhibition is quite passive; it is picture, after picture, after picture on a static wall. If you add sound, light, film to an exhibition, at least you get the idea of more interaction. Because the sound of a film can influence people in the way they absorb photography. And vice versa, photography can influence how you look at a film. So you can complete your story or you can deepen your story a little more. You can make the question mark that is hanging on top of every photograph even bigger.
N: We talked about being controversial but also about being commissioned to work for a client. You have worked so far with big brands like Diesel, Heineken, Louis Vuitton. I’d like to ask you, do you see your commissioned work and your artistic free work as mutually excluding, or can you combine the two?
E: They can be combined once in a while. When you work on an assignment, it may not be so free, but it’s a learning process. You learn a number of things, technical stuff, composition-wise, story-telling, because the client knows he wants to sell the product in a certain way and you have to make your artistic freedom follow that story. It also gives you more structure. And that structure helps me back in my free work. So these two things can feed off each other, they are not mutually excluded.
N: Now let’s talk about the incident that brought you to the forefront of media exposure. I have a general question first; do you think that artistic expression is more free now, compared to 20-30 years ago?
E: Well in the western world the freedom of speech and freedom of expression are very well protected. That is the law. However, the atmosphere in the street is different; it’s much more reactionary at the moment. People are closing in again, hiding their emotions, these are the tendencies nowadays. And I was confronted with that.
N: What happened outside that döner place on Hugo de Grootplein?
E: We were having dinner at a restaurant that is not in the center of Amsterdam, not in this protected so-to-speak area, but very close to the center. We went outside for a moment and we were standing within 10 meters from the terrace of this döner snack bar. And we kissed. Then we saw the owner of the döner place coming towards us and asking us to stop kissing. He, his wife, his assistant, they didn’t want to see us kissing. He thought that it was inappropriate that two men were kissing there. The next day he changed his story in the media, he said that he found it inappropriate that two people were kissing there.
N: Was it a source of inspiration for you, to be provocative? Was it an act of activism? Did you try to make a statement with that kiss?
E: No. It was just me kissing my boyfriend. I am living in a country where being gay is not a crime. I am living in a country where gays can get married. So I am under the impression that when I can marry in this country, I can walk hand-in-hand with my boyfriend in this country and I can kiss him whenever I want, on every corner of every street, on every part of this city, of this country. And I never listen and will not listen even after this incident to any of the columnists, the writers, the journalists, the opinion-makers, the politicians, the policemen, the brick-layers, whatever and whoever they are, I will not listen to their opinion. I am allowed to kiss and I will kiss.
N: So artistic expression may not be as free as before, but what about other kinds of expression. If kissing who you love at this day and age is considered revolutionary, if you have to fight for such a fundamental right, then what sort of freedom of expression are we talking about?
E: Exactly. After the incident we biked here, on this canal on the side of my house, and there was a man and a woman french-kissing. And I thought, what I want is also normal. Just as normal and romantic as their kissing. I am 53 years old and I am more than 35 years out of the closet. Every year somebody across the street or at the other side of the square is telling me that I am wrong, because I am gay. Once a year at least. And this is Holland we are talking about, how about that. That’s why we had a “spit-in” at the “kiss-in”.
N: But there were a lot of people at the kiss-in, supporting you. I live in Amsterdam for over 10 years now and I ‘ve never seen so many people at such an impromptu demonstration.
E: Yes it was amazing how many people came to the kiss-in. But the media wrote that there were only 100 people. I feel very proud for all those people who took action and came to our support. And they were not just gays, there were people with children, straight people, older women, younger women, lesbians and drag-queens but without their outfits and wigs, they came as men to show their solidarity to us. They didn’t allow the media to treat us as circus animals, because that’s what the media do to feel safe.
N: Do you see that the Dutch society is changing? And if so, where is it headed? What are the new norms? What is really changing?
E: There are two normative ways we can express. We can express ourselves as drag-queens, or we can express ourselves inside. But not in the outside. We are not allowed to show our emotions. We can probably express ourselves in the center of a big city but not everywhere we want. In the whole of the Netherlands, I think that we can really express ourselves freely only in about 25 streets. Not more than that. Nothing beyond that.
N: If you had to give us a reason, why do you think it is headed that direction, what would you say?
E: I think it’s the huge influence of the Anglo-Saxon world, the prudishness. Our culture is heavily influenced by America and the UK. We are flooded with crap television programs from the US, where they show only macho types of men, they show titties and lap dances but you cannot sit on the lap or touch. You can show a suggestion of sexuality on TV but not sexuality itself.
N: Last question Erwin, do you have a comment Greece? Do you know any promising Greek photographers for example? And what do you think about the euro debt crisis? Do you agree with the rhetoric that we hear a lot from Holland, that the Greeks are this, and that, and the other and they should pay for their sins?
E: I think that ONE Europe is our future. We the Dutch or the Germans can say that the Greeks now are lazy … but we are the same. People are people. The crisis is a good lesson for all of us. You know the problems that come up on the surface now, they knew already from the start of this enterprise. We should look at who really started the crisis, and these are the bankers in the United States. And also they stole from Greece. I saw this documentary about the role of big American banks in the crisis in Greece and there you can clearly see that everything was staged and the Greeks were only the scapegoat in all of this.
N: Erwin Olaf, thank you so much for this long but interesting discussion.
E: Thank you Nikos and good luck with everything you do.