‘It takes my mind off things‘ is a wonderment at and interrogation of the shooting culture in the Netherlands. In this provocative piece, I posed the question; has the Netherlands always been a ‘secretive’ gun-nation? Secretive in that it has a long-standing fixation with firearms that is systematically hidden and denied. From the political-economic sphere of transnational interactions – the Netherlands place in the top five for creating firearm components in Europe – to the socio-cultural realm of the individual – the joy many Dutchmen find when firing at shooting ranges, a tradition that has existed for over hundreds of years. Think of the famous Dutch painting of the ‘Nightwatch’ by Rembrandt van Rijn probably one of the oldest paintings of a shooters range, at that time called a marksman guild being portrayed. Without realising firearms are deeply rooted in the soil of the Dutch cultivation. Research tells us it started in 1851 when King William III invited thirteen marksman guilds for a game called ‘Royal Concours’, his interest for the sport made these guilds unite from over the country. Members of Royal Dutch family have always served as the patron saint of the sport, until the death of Prince Bernard in 2004. This made the sport an elitist phenomenon in the past. Even today the sport is still one of the most expensive activities to practise.
In the Netherlands there are a legion of shooting clubs, some of which are existing for over a hundred years, where weekly Dutch men and woman empty with full gratification their magazines. With over eight hundred shooting ranges in the Netherlands with an average of hundred fifty members, this is a large group within the Dutch society.
In 2011 a horrible shooting incident took place in the Netherlands, in Alphen aan de Rijn. The young Tristan van der Vlis shot several people in a shopping mall, before taking his own life. The shooter was a member of a range, with a registered weapon license, which allowed him to keep his weapon at home in spite of his psychotic and suicidal tendencies. In the wake of the incident, not only the government but everybody wondered how this was allowed to happen. With just a few shots, Tristan van der Vlis cast a dark shadow over the Dutch shooting culture. The pressure on the clubs is present; the rules have been examined and adjusted. Now the clubs have been given a huge responsibility by the government. Responsibility for their members.
But what does this responsibility mean? Do we really have to worry? Or is it a matter of stigmatisation, where we distrust every gun enthusiast? Even though only three percent of the shooting incidents in the Netherlands happen with a registered weapon? It leaves the overarching question; how can you even decide who is dangerous and who is not?
The topic came to my mind during my graduation year at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague in 2013. Two years after the shooting incident I have always kept a close look at the subject, before that I had never heard about shooting clubs in the Netherlands or the rights to own armoury here. Researching the subject, you read about our Dutch history, which is still present in the shooting clubs e.g. names of our royal family or resistance groups from WWII. There was a lot I could find about the history, but I could not find anything that would represent a shooting club in the present day.
For example I had no idea, what a member would look like or the inside interior of a shooting club. News articles would most of the time be guided with a boring stock photo of a blurry person pointing a gun at the viewer. But never a real member, which I think is impossible, now that I have finished the project; I don’t think that in an August Sander-Ian gaze there would be one person that could represent the whole group.
Seeing the portraits all together – they show an explosion of personalities. Creating a dialogue with the interior and their members. They are fused with the locations. I felt the need to exclude them from it with the portraits. Deleting the background noise by putting them in a studio surrounding it became more confronting who these people are. A power shift: since they would pose with their arm, becoming an attribute and me shooting a portrait of them.
The most important thing for me was how to create the experience. How would somebody who doesn’t know a shooting club experience it? For me, this was a reason to create a representation in form of a photo book. Paper was important to the members since they would shoot at it. Working together with Sybren Kuiper (–SYB-) who did the beautiful design of the book. He was very close to the whole development of the project. It didn’t feel complete after graduation. This is why I continued, and Sybren made an awesome design in the end – bigger and better! We also cut back. We dropped quotes, from questions I asked the members. It felt as if I was directing them to much.
Still when I give a presentation about the project, I always start with the question “who has ever fired a gun?” I keep this curiosity, mainly because I still want to be surprised by people. I like finding things out from people you don’t really expect. People play an important part in my work. It’s not a necessity that they are in it. But they are 99% the starting point of my projects. Little encounters, stories that I hear or are have been told tend to catch my attention. This starts my curiosity to investigate. Stories that are far away from my every day life, that seem stranger than fiction.
In a way I use photography to escape my own mundane and pre-designed life. Where I don’t have to think about paying the rent or forgetting to buy cat food. Maybe it has to do with the second thing I truly love: literature.
Reading stories by Tom Wolfe or Jack Kerouac, Truman Capote and so on, who were part of the ‘New Journalism’. A style of news writing journalism which was developed in the 1960’s – 70’s. The literary style is characterised by a subjective perspective and emphasises ‘truth’ over ‘facts’. In contrast to my book’s heroes, I tend to keep myself invisible, but I do immerse myself within the stories and build up a bond with my subjects. It’s personal nature and the significance of involvement. Not that I don’t believe in objective accuracy, but I think the influence of feelings is hard to ignore. Especially working together with people on long-term projects.
I often found myself, sitting at the table with the board of various shooting clubs before I could actually really start ‘shooting’ photographs. Long conversations occurred, and still is whenever I am having a presentation about the project about this subject. We are becoming more critical towards photography. There even seems to develop a suspicion for the medium, wherein the intention of the photograph, or in which the photographer is being questioned. Are these subjects, those I truly want to continue to follow become so sensitive, or is it better left unexposed? It’s a questions that occurs in my mind a lot.
I always make it difficult for myself and the starting point for me is always the hardest; whenever this is sitting down with the subjects or sitting down with myself and start working. Having a lot of questions and thoughts, which are all over the place to be honest. Making me walk around with it for weeks, sometimes months. Harassing friends with these thoughts and ideas. I keep a notebook with topics I am interested in, when I lay in bed supposed to go to sleep. Instead keep just researching for hours on topics, just reading. Screwing up lots of goodnight sleeps on a regular base. Making me not the best morning person. I know when I get very obsessive about it, I start finally photographing.
Photographs and images are such a strong way of telling stories, which everybody can read. I don’t want to sound super cliché but you don’t need to speak the same languages to understand. That’s what I think is so beautiful about photography, it doesn’t need a translation when looking at it. I am not good with words, even answering these questions for you guys from Art Narratives takes some time. I guess this is the only way for me to actually tell and share stories. I am thirty years old and growing up, we -my generation- had a big transition in ways of communicating. The internet plays a huge roll in this too. Even now we are still developing and visual literacy is becoming increasingly important. As we are communicating more and more through images on a daily basis; whenever there is a cry smiley face emoji, which was chosen the word of 2015 by Oxford Dictionaries by the way. Or a sloth GIF that exactly explains your emotion at the moment.
We are used to be taught in schools how to interpret words or how to read, whenever this is theoretical, poetry and so on. But since the visual literacy is developing on such a high and fast level right now, you see a change in the way –young– photographers at the moment are also picking up new ways of telling stories. Those that blur the borders between documentary and conceptual practices and who are stepping outside of the traditional photojournalistic gaze.
For many years photography had overcome a status of truth, a reflection of reality. I read a lot of essays about it during my study from Susan Sontag and Liz Wells. But, whoever thinks this is still true, is nowadays left behind. From what I see think, the objectiveness, the decisive moments of the here and now are no longer important. We are sliding slowly into the phenomenology, and letting go of rules and expectations. I like that imperfections and errors are no longer a problem.
You can buy Robin’s book ‘It takes my mind off things’ on Edition.ly