THE STORY OF MY LIFE
The very moment when I was born in Amsterdam during World War II, the Germans were bombing the Fokker Aircraft Factory on the outskirts of the city, very close to our home. My mother much later described how terrible the noise was, how frightening it was as I popped out of her belly, not knowing whether this time of new life would also bring death.
My dad in 1942 left to join the Dutch Resistance, against the Germans, who promptly arrested my mother and us five children and sent us to the Vught Concentration Camp. I was two years old. I have no memories of this time, or of the ordeal that my mother and my older sisters and brother endured. We were liberated in 1944, and after the war ended on May 10, 1945, our dad returned, safe, happy and healthy.
These tumultuous beginnings known to me only through the recollections of others would prove as foreshadowing of the adventurous life to come as were the bucolic childhood years that followed. My dad resumed his job as a factory machinist, while my mother looked after us kids. We were a poor Dutch family, but I had a wonderful time, growing up in the Amsterdam suburbs which then were more like the countryside.
I thus passed my youth during those first 20 years of what we in Europe call “The Thirty Glorious Years”: those years directly after the war, when everything had to be reconstructed, the fifties through the sixties and seventies. My brother Jimmy was seven years older than me, and he taught me to dance, to swing to music like Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Little Richard. We were so influenced by American music and culture.
I was an extremely happy boy, getting a good education and dreaming about what I might be when I grew up. I can still visualize my dad, an amateur photographer, using his extremely simple camera to immortalize our family and landscapes in black and white. He would then hand color the black and white prints, and I was fascinated by the process. When I was sixteen, a movie director came to our school, looking for a bit player in a movie he was shooting in Amsterdam.
I was selected, and ended up spending a week in this huge studio, full of lights and cameras. My choice was made: I wanted to become a cameraman.
I told my dad, and he answered me, smart fellow, that in order to become a cameraman I first had to learn everything about photography. Why not, he suggested, start out at first working as an apprentice photographer here in Amsterdam? It was a good plan.
The next year I finished my studies and graduated, and it was time to find a job. I was young and full of spice, but the job I landed selling spices in Amsterdam for America’s McCormick proved dreary and boring. I remember it vividly, after I had been at the job for not even a month; I was washing my hands in a corner of the office, and the boss ordered me to move out of his way. I politely answered that I would as soon as I finished washing my hands. the man got mad and fired me on the spot. I was unemployed, and I loved it!
One day my dad came home – I can still see him coming, on his bike – and he was very excited. He told me he had toured around Amsterdam visiting various photography studios and talking to their owners. And he had found a studio whose owner needed an apprentice photographer, starting out working in the darkroom. The next day I went and met him, Ger Looman, a photographer who had been running his own studio for the past fifteen years or so. He hired me on the spot.
I was seventeen years old and I was going to become a photographer. I couldn’t believe it. I can still see myself, watching myself pose in the mirror with a Rolleiflex around my neck, wishing. “Robert, maybe one day you will become a real photographer.”
Over the following two years I took night classes with Lex Werkheim, who had taught photography at The Hague’s Fotovakschool. Three times a week, in the evenings after my work as an apprentice, I would bike to his home to follow his classes and learn about photography. During the day, at the studio where I worked, I learned the practice of photography, through developing film, making prints and occasionally taking photos. In April 1959, I graduated from the Fotovakschool, and continued my job with Ger Looman.
THE FIRST FIRE
At the time, enrollment in the Dutch army was compulsory, and in January 1960 it was my time to enlist. The first three months of army training and practice was the same for everyone, but afterwards we were assigned particular army jobs. I thought, as a professional photographer, I would automatically be dispatched as a photographer.
It did not turn out this way at all.
I was assigned to be a truck driver. A truck driver! I still had another eighteen months to serve, and I considered this to be a total waste of my time and my professional development. Something had to be done. I decided, I suffered five dull months of driving army trucks before I made my move.
One night, I got up, slipped out of the army barracks, and climbed a fence to escape the base. I found myself on the road to Amsterdam, and started to hitchhike. I got lucky, and a car took me straight to Amsterdam, and I went to my favorite bar, the Cotton Club. I got half-drunk, and I stole a bike – when I think of it now, I was able to do some terrible things! – and biked to my house.
There in our garden, I stripped off my army clothes and boots, I placed them into a neat pile. I go into the garage and found some gasoline, which I poured over my military attire. One match later, and I was watching the most marvelous bonfire of army clothing and boots, burning rapid-fire. With that conflagration. I knew my army days were over.
It was four in the morning. My parents, my sisters and my brother peered out the window in bewilderment. I explained, and they wished me well before I climbed into bed. Day broke, and soon an army ambulance arrived to collect me. It drove me to a psychiatric hospital in Utrecht, where I spend two weeks without talking to anyone, not even the doctors. To get out of the military, I had decided to be crazy!
I was a free man again in September 1960, and returned to my photography job. It was no longer enough freedom for me, though. In May 1961 I determined to leave Holland, to travel and take photos.
TRANSITIONS, AND TRANSFORMATIONS
My “madness” escaping the military was only the first rebirth I had by fire. The next came that May of 1961, after I arrived in Nice on the French Côte d’Azur. It was the strangest thing. I had come straight from Holland, with real Dutch milky skin. I was white like an aspirin. The weather in Nice was hot and beautiful, and I went out to the beach seeking to soak up the sun and get a real tan. A fool, I spend five hours roasting in that sun, and got burned – so burned that I spent that entire night under a cold shower in the small Nice youth hostel.
I was in agony the subsequent couple of days, after which I could tear huge chunks of dried skin from all over my body. Much later, recalling this stupidity, I wondered – had I done this on purpose? Did I subconsciously want to shed my pale Dutch skin to metamorphose into a new being? I cannot say.
A week later I left Nice by boat for Corsica, a beautiful French island in the Mediterranean. In the town of Calvi, more precisely the Bay of Calvi, I found work washing dishes and painting bungalows at Club de l’Horizon, a small holiday resort on a beautiful beach. I stayed there for four months, then went to pick grapes in Southern France until October 1961. From there, I hitchhiked all the way to Stockholm, in Sweden, where I found a job in a Coca Cola factory, working both day and night shifts.
A year at Coca Cola in Stockholm bottled me a considerable amount of money, before I felt it was time to move on. I had heard about the Canary Islands, Spanish islands off the coast of Africa where the winters are mild and where I could continue taking photos with my Rolleiflex. From Stockholm I hitchhiked to Cadiz in Southern Spain, then took a boat to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. It was October 1962, and I found a small place to live there while taking photos and traveling around the Canaries. Once a Spanish travel agency flew me to photograph El Aiun, near Morocco, in what is today called the Western Sahara.
That was a wonderful winter, and afterwards, in April 1963, I took a boat to Barcelona from where I hitchhiked to Cannes, in Southern France, where I spend that summer working in a photography darkroom. And another crazy idea sprang to my mind, to go to Israel and work on a Kibbutz. The problem was how to get there, from Cannes. I said to myself, just go – and that is what I did.
In October 1963 I had hitchhiked my way to Beirut, Lebanon, which is where my Kibbutz dreams collapsed. Direct entry from Lebanon into Israel was not permitted at the time. I had to go to Cyprus, I was told, where I might be able to procure a visa to Israel, but it was not certain. Amidst this, my room in a small hotel in Beirut was broken into, and the thief took part of my money as well as my Rolleiflex. I was crushed – what could I do? I still had money in a Swedish bank account, so it would be alright. I decided to return to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, to spend another mild winter with the many friends I had there. But, damn it, here I was in Beirut, and to get to the Canaries I must go to Cadiz in Southern Spain, some 4.500 kilometres away to cover by hitchhiking – but I had gotten there, I could get back. I landed in Cadiz at the end of October, and days later I was back in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. I was back home amongst my friends – but camera-less!
Once again, my dad came to the rescue. He had bought in Amsterdam a used Hasselblad, which he sent to me in Las Palmas, and I could make photos again.
After another winter in the Canary Islands, in April 1964 I told myself it was time to try my luck in Paris. I arrived there in May, and after a few months of working in the photo lab of a large studio in Paris, I was hired as the director and portraiture photographer of the Studio d’Art of the Galeries Lafayette. I even had my own secretary, but not so much of a salary. It was then, in Paris, that I met a French girl, an artist, who would become my wife and then my ex-wife. We had only a little money: 1964 was still very lean times in France. We wanted to marry and live together, but where? Her father was extremely poor, and too sick to work. He lived in a northern Paris suburb, called La Courneuve, in a small house with two rooms and a kitchen, and a toilet shared with the neighbours. There was no bath or shower. We have no option but to move in with him, as we lack the income to rent our own apartments. These were hard times, as I continued to shoot portraits at the Studio d’Art.
Eventually we left France to establish ourselves in Toronto, Canada where an old friend from Amsterdam had been living for a number of years. We arrived there in January 1966, and the culture shock was something enormous. The severely cold winters, the language and much more disoriented us. Still, I found work and my wife freelanced as a textile and wallpaper designer. We rented a large Victorian house, where we lived and where I started my own photography studio.
The dream fuelling our move to Canada was to save up enough money to buy a car and take a one year road trip exploring all of the Americas – North, Central and South. We amassed sufficient funds and acquired a brand new Peugeot 403 station wagon by the end of 1969, and subletting our old Toronto Victorian house, we embarked on New Year’s Eve of 1969. What a voyage: we drove to the American West Coast, visiting San Francisco and Los Angeles, and from there continued into Mexico, where we stayed for three months.
From Mexico we headed into Central America, to Panama, where the Panamarican Highway, which runs all the way from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Chile, stops. We shipped the car from Panama to Buenaventura, Columbia, and from there drove all the way to the southernmost tip of South America. Tierra del Fuego – “land of fire” – in Argentina. We passed through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, mostly sleeping in the car and cooking our food on a small Primus heater.
From Terra del Fuego we headed back north, to Buenos Aires, to Ascunsion in Paraguay, to Curitiba in Brazil, then on to the brand new capital Brazilia, stopping in San Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. I decided I did not want to return by the same route, so I shipped the car from Rio to Lisbon, Portugal. We explored Spain, shipped the car to Morocco, and toured that wonderful country.
By then it was March 1971, and we had been on the road for thirteen months. We drove to Paris and to Amsterdam, to look in on my and my wife’s families. In June I shipped the car from Rotterdam to New York, and we flew to New York and went straight from JFK to the harbor to collect the car and beeline back to Toronto, back to the old Victorian house with our apartment and my photo studio. It was May 1971, we were home, settling in, and all seemed well. Until disaster struck.
A month after our return, it is 3 am in the morning, and a fire breaks out. We live on the third floor of the house, and luckily I wake up. I smell the thick smoke and hear the roar of the flames rising through the staircase up from the ground floor. We are trapped – except our house had an outdoor fire escape, which saves our lives.
It is then 3:15 in the morning, and I am watching my house, with all my belongings, including my Latin American photography, go up in flames. And it occurs to me that I have a mere 39 Canadian dollars left in my bank account. I have nothing – no cameras, no money, and all of the photography I realized in a year and a half traveling North and South America, everything is lost.
I have to start again, from scratch. As I do so, after this calamity, I feel that I become someone else. Again it is thanks to the heat, to getting burned, like that first time, at the age of 20, when the sunburn first sloughed off my naïve, pale Dutch skin.
I am 31, and all of a sudden, I can see clearly.
I finally think I understand what my photography should be, what sort of photography is truly mine, and how to realize my vision. I decide I will only work in color and in the 35mm format. I bought the Nikon F 35mm camera, with only a few lenses, and started to work in Kodachrome transparency film. Today I have thousands of 35mm slides I photographed all over the world.
ON ASSIGNMENT: PARIS, HAVANA, SHANGHAI
I resided in Toronto for another eight years, but fled most of the winters to photograph in Mexico and Guatemala. I bought a Volkswagen van that I outfitted with a bed and had colourful American and Canadian clients who sent me to shoot all over Canada. I moved back to Paris in January 1979, prompted by a photo exhibition I had there called “Mesoamerica, Thoughts and Images”, of photographs I had made among the autonomous people of Mexico and Guatemala. The Paris exhibition proved a success, and allowed me to establish myself as a freelance photographer, getting assignments from magazines like Stern, Geo, Marie Claire, Vogue, the Sunday Times Magazine, and Avenue. Assignment for these magazines sent me all over the world.
My return to Paris meanwhile proved fatal to my first marriage. I separated from my wife in 1984. Later that same year I met a wonderful young woman, a French girl. We actually started living together the night of our first meeting, it was love at first sight!
The Dutch Ministry of Culture in 1986 gave me an important grant that would allow me to spend one year photographing wherever I wanted to. That May I had spend three weeks in Cuba, photographing for the French Marie Claire. So why not go there, and live there for one year and photograph? I discussed the idea with my French fiancée, who immediately agreed. We arrived in Havana on January 2, 1987. I bought a car, a Soviet style Lada, brand new, for 4250 US dollars, and found a great place to live in the heart of Havana. From Havana, I toured the island, taking photos. These Cuban pictures I exhibited in November 1988 as part of the Paris Month of Photography.
I was a happy man in Paris. I was receiving great assignments from important magazines. I never made a lot of money, but it was enough to pay the bills. I became a father in 1988, with the birth of my son Johan.
It was 1990 when I discovered China. A phone call came from the art director of French Vogue, proposing a photo feature on the city of Shanghai. The magazine organized everything. That May I arrived at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, and a taxi took me to the Peace Hotel. I had never before been in Asia, and here I was in Shanghai, such a mythic city to us Westerners. It was another turning point in my life. Within 24 hours I fell in love with the city, knowing already that I want to come back again and again.
And I did. I revisited Shanghai seven times between 1990 and 1993, on assignments for different magazines. In 1994 I exhibited “Shanghai Photocopies” in Paris. That same year I became a father again, when my daughter Saskia was born. I continued working for magazines, which send me to Sidney in Australia, and to Tokyo and Fukuoa in Japan. To Patagonia in Argentina, to the Eskimos places in Greenland. To New York, Arizona, San Francisco, and South Dakota in the United States. To Mali, Senegal, Algeria, Namibia, and Morocco in Africa. I returned to Peru, Ecuador and Columbia in South America, and headed to Russia and around Europe.
I revisited Cuba once thereafter. In 1999, Stern, a German magazine, invited me to do a photo feature about the country. I booked a flight bound for Havana in Paris and obtained visa to Cuba. But something embarrassing happened upon arrival, I was detained there for two days and then returned to Paris.
FROM JOURNALIST TO ARTIST?
2001 brought for me another turning point in my life as a photographer. By the end of the 1990s, well-paid assignments of important photo features for magazines had dried up. I had felt for some time that I wanted to do more personal photographic work. Throughout my career, while on assignment, I had always taken photo inside the homes of families. This certainly stems from how, as a Dutchman, I was heavily influenced by the seventeenth Century Dutch masters like Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hoogh, Jan Steen and others whose paintings portrayed simple families inside their homes.
I decided that, from now on, I would only photograph “interiors”, the physical representing the spiritual. Moreover, I would start in Cuba. Yes, Cuba. It was still one of my favorite places to photograph. That April, May and June of 2001, I photographed what would become the series “Cuban Interiors”.
For these interiors I realized I needed a larger format camera, and I acquired the Mamiya 7 with various lenses and using color negative film. 120 or 220 roll film. I received a grant from l’Institut Néerlandais de Paris (the Dutch Art Institute in Paris) to pursue this project, and later they would exhibit “Cuban Interiors” and publish a book of the same. Later that year,
a French publisher released my book, “The Cubans", with the photos I had taken in 1987 and 1988.
After that, I started photographing the amazing land of China.
I still had friends in Shanghai, and in April 2004, some ten years since my last visit, I rediscovered the city, I met up with my dear friend Lili, my interpreter who I had met during my last stay in Shanghai in 1993. What a help she proved, she was so excited about my “Chinese Interiors” project.
Lili took me to meet the publisher of this book. Chen Haiwen. I had brought my Cuban photography books along, and upon seeing them, Haiwen immediately picked up his phone, dialed Beijing, and organized an exhibition of “Cuban Interiors” at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in September 2004. I was flabbergasted. Things can happen so fast in this country.
This exhibition turned out to be so important for me. As I speak no Chinese, I had worried over how to conduct my interiors photography in China, as I planned to travel all over the vast country. How to convince Chinese families to permit a stranger, a “laowai” (foreigner) like me into their homes to portray them? During my exhibition in Pingyao, I met Chinese photographers from all over China, who spoke English, were enthusiastic about my project; they invited me to visit them in their towns and cities around China, and there take me to other towns and villages and help me locate homes to photograph. Again, I was so surprised, at such hospitality, such curiosity, such generosity from people I barely knew. Of course, I accepted.
Thus began a wonderful eight years in China, traveling back and forth between Paris and Shanghai. From Shanghai, I headed to many of the major Chinese cities to meet up with my new friends and to photograph, with their help, “Chinese Interiors”. In June 2010, Chen Haiwen edited and published the book of “Chinese Interiors”, with the Shanghai Fine Art Publishing House. The French publisher Gallimard published the same book that October.
Meanwhile, in 2009 I was invited by Hangzhou officials to spend six months as an artist in residence to create a portrait of that city, which was another great experience in China.
As I write this, it is June 2012. I have spent the past three months frantically working on this book, “Timeless World”. The process took me through the thousands of kodachromes I took in some 66 countries since 1971. I even found black and white photos I took in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the very beginning of my career, with my late, lamented Rolleiflex. Certainly some of these must be included as well.
Knowing of my archives of world photography, Chen Haiwen first proposed a book with this material two years ago. At that time, I told him that I needed a serious concept around which to organize a book of such disparate material, and I did not know of one. It only hit me three months ago: I wake up in the middle of the night, in my apartment in Shanghai, and sit straight up in my bed and light up a Hong Shuangxi, or Double Happiness, cigarette. I had found it.
I found it in that very fluidity, in the disparity that is itself a continuity, of the universal specificity of time and space that compromises our world, and our mythically mundane lives, The fleeting moment of “now” that lasts forever, a particular place and face in space, because we weigh its value and meaning.
People, places and time encapsulate, beyond even what makes us human, what makes us exist, joyous. Mentally I return to those prefixes of any-, some-, no-, every- as they are attached to body s, where s and when s. Mixing them up, recombinant DNA, they are not precisely interchangeable, per se, but different elements of the same reality, they are the same entity but as viewed from different angles or refracted into different lights. In this kaleidoscope of endless, constant upheaval, change is itself a tranquil constant. We could be anywhere, anytime, and here we are.
These past forty years spent photographing people all over the world, who are they, and when, and where are they, truly? What have I immortalized? What are these frozen memories of the dead, gazing at us demandingly? My photos tell only a split second of their stories, their justifications and passions, yet through them the photos also tell my story, and yours.
Robert van der Hilst