Monday, December 14, 2009

Regarding Theo.

Photo Theo Niekus
Some time ago Amsterdam street photographer Theo Niekus acquired temporary notoriety for being arrested by the police as he stood in a doorway on Dam Square. When asked about his business by the patrolmen, he simply answered defiantly: "I am just standing here". Off they took him to the nick, and eventually to court. Probably it was the camera that made him both conspicuous and suspicious. By the time he reached judgment a huge crowd of support had gathered as a general outcry was made from many sympathizers of civil liberties and the rights of photographers on the street in particular. He got off with a light punishment, albeit the judge complained about the unnecessary commotion around his seemingly simple case. Things had been drummed up a lot needlessly. Theo simply should have known better than addressing nowadays stressed and thinly spread law enforcers like he did. That was the underlying message. Off the hook for this time, he went back to his usual work with renewed energy.

Photo Theo Niekus
Street photography is what he does. One would be almost tempted to call it one street photography really, as his favourite haunt seems to be that stretch that connects Central Station to Dam Square, maybe half a k long, called Damrak, and Dam Square itself (where he was arrested). My personal encounter with Theo happened on a different spot, a bridge on the Oude Waal close to his home, where I was photographing the city with my view camera and he was photographing me – completely undetected – from the other side of the bridge. The shot taken, he walked over and we had a congenial chat. He also gave me some sheet film holders he wasn’t using any more. Later I bought one of his books, and have recently subscribed to the first number of his magazine.

Damrak is a busy place, the first street every tourist or commuter has to negotiate arriving by train to the city, lined with restaurants and cheap hotels, snack bars, money changers and souvenir places. Even the Erotica museum. It is noisy and crowded, chaotic and my least favourite place in town. Ideal for Theo, for he has an uncanny ability of looking at the noise and confusion, and selecting these slices of reality in which things seem to make some kind of absurd statement if not sense. I would imagine it takes exceptional speed to capture these very fleeting instants on camera. More than that, even intuition of how things will develop. To react is not enough, he needs to anticipate in order to get the shot that you and I merely see flashing by helplessly, frustrated at being unable to catch it.

Photo Theo Niekus
Sometimes reality is so quick and fascinating, that you would wish for a camera inside your eye, so as to record everything with no delay and unfailingly. Theo seems to have such a camera, but of course he doesn’t. Don’t know his secret yet, but find the results both intriguing and soothing. Because should we have a camera in the eye, we wouldn’t do better than him, and now at least we can see what we are missing if not claiming paternity of the results. What do you get by being so fast?

Photo: Theo Niekus
Actually Theo’s work is maybe to be compared with photographic Tourette’s syndrome: a compulsive collection of often sexually tinted or vaguely obscene hints, human interactions, allusive objects and texts, the random kaleidoscopy of life suddenly falling into some kind of rough pattern, with possibly a peculiar kind of sarcasm as a result, maybe a darker meaning. It derives its legitimacy from being completely honest and authentic. It would be tragic if it were the product of a lunatic, sad as the fabrication of a psychopath or worse – a conceptual artist –. But it is neither. Theo is perfectly sane; all he does is raw photography of raw reality at exceptional speed. Unretouched, direct, unhibited, confronting as the incoffessable truth about what we look at and how we see it. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to develop this unique approach, original, very Amsterdam, slightly anarchistic as I suspect Theo’s sympathies may lie in politics and which could account for his attitude towards the cops who interfered with his photo stalking. I don’t see anything wrong with what he does. There are cameras all over, especially on Damrak. If you are there you should be aware of it, and are fair game for photo shooting, in my opinion. As long as the work isn't used dishonestly or unfairly. How to define fair? Relatively simple: no mystifying captions and no commercial use. He does neither, leaves his photographs be what they are, to be judged on their merit alone on the pages of his self produced magazine. It takes guts to do that and usually doesn't make one rich.

Photo:Theo Niekus
I like Theo because I see him as a success in uncompromising dedication to his vision. Also I think that his attitude and choices are rooted in a historic rebellious side of Amsterdam that is now lost. The city of tolerance, of protest movements, again a place where a measure of anarchy would be possible even though it occasionally lead to widespread self indulgence and excesses. He is a survivor of a bygone era, an active positively hard working one at that. So we should subscribe to his magazine titled “report”. It’s a small contribution to make in exchange for intriguing if at times vaguely disturbing images. If someone has to do it, and I believe it to be the case, I am more than glad that Theo is out there doing it instead of me. He does a great job at it and I don’t have to feel sorry or inadequate for not having a camera in my eye any more. I can look at his pictures from time to time, a healthy catharsis of potential street frustration, the better to focus on my own - admittedly quite different - work.

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