woensdag 18 augustus 2021


In recent years I have often taken pictures of the 'new' Hoog Catharijne mall (like this one in 2018). One of these days I walked through the Stadskamer again, the central square of Hoog Catharijne above the canal, where you can see the boats sailing below you through the glass bottom of a few ponds. It was again a pleasant bustle and two boys of about eleven were playing with the water in swimming trunks. They happily slipped off the edge over which the water runs. I was eager to take a few more photos, from the gallery one floor up, and wondered if I could capture the atmosphere but also if it were appropriate that the boys would be seen in the photo. I hesitated, walked around and then snapped a few photos.

Suddenly I was loudly accosted by a young woman passing by, not the mother of the children. How dare I take pictures of boys in swimming trunks. Yes, I saw it. That's ‘rancid’.

My primary instinctive response was that we were on the same side when it came to protecting children. I remained calm and tried to get a word or two between her diatribe, wanting to ask her what she thought could or could not be done or what I should do. Her 'concern' was, after all, exactly one of the things I thought about when I considered if I could take pictures of the atmosphere here. But as soon as and each time I opened my mouth, she got even angrier and started yelling louder. No, I shouldn't object! I didn't want that at all, but I couldn't make that clear to her. Finally, while she kept on talking, I showed her my ‘photo gallery’ and asked her if I should delete the photos. Suddenly she became silent and looked along with me. I had not yet seen or 'approved' the photos myself, it turned out that I had taken four photos on the spot, I clicked them one by one: look, this is the mall, this, this and this. Click and delete. She was satisfied and walked on with her friend.

It wasn't until the evening, when I was home, that it dawned on me that deleting the photos means they're still in the digital ‘trash bin’ and that my generous deletion was rather gratuitous. I went to the recycle bin of my photo gallery and looked at the photos for the first time. Two of the four photos didn't show the boys at all, in one they could be seen in the distance and in one quite close. On closer inspection I probably wouldn't have approved that last photo either. But I had no problem deleting all four photos anyway, if anyone is uncomfortable with it. To stay honest, I've permanently deleted all four photos, including the ones that didn't have the boys in them.

During her tirade I had remained calm, both inwardly and outwardly, because, as I said, I wanted to think along with her, or rather that she thought along with me. But because of her temperament and direct approach - prejudging by her accent and appearance, I suspect a Mediterranean, Islamic background - that conversation was not possible. What I definitely did not agree with is the word ‘rancid’. In her eyes, children in swimming trunks may be ‘raunchy’ in their own right. I disagree, the scene was completely harmless. My angle is 'privacy'. Everyone has the right to 'himself', protection of one's own private life, regardless of age. Adults also have a right to 'themselves', their own private life, but children should get extra protection. Innocent beach photos may soon be found on pedosites and the dark net. I would not put photos in which the children are recognizable on Facebook - even if I had not deleted them - or certainly not without the permission of the parents and the consent of the children themselves.

I have thought a lot about this topic and talked about it with others. Coincidentally, just two days before this incident, I had discussed it extensively with someone. Also about how you could or should not tackle this. I had mentioned the example of the 'mud day'. My sister has done communications for a large organization of daycare centers for many years. How do you post nice photos of fun activities on Facebook or the website of the organization without violating the privacy of the children and parents? In principle, you never portray children from the daycare in a recognizable way. For example, you can photograph them from behind or from a distance, and on a mud day - when the children are allowed to play in the mud - you can photograph the muddy hands or boots of a group of children. Years ago I was at the beach with friends and their three-year-old son was playing naked in the wet sand and was covered in mud. I took all kinds of atmospheric photos, but suddenly both parents started screaming when I pointed my camera at their muddy son from behind and from some distance. I thought it was a nice image, but they definitely didn't want that, so I didn't.

It is not since yesterday that I am aware of this subject. I have an old black and white photo from when I was about eight years old, somewhere in 1963, I think, we were out for a day at the Kootwijkse Zand, the beautiful sand drift in the woods not far from our home. I am lying on the ground and my father bends over me. In itself a nice photo, I think made by an uncle or friend of the family. But I know I'm upset there, maybe crying or screaming. I remember not wanting to be in the picture - I don't know why - so I ran away. But my father had chased me and 'got hold of me' and tried to calm me down. Then that photo was taken and I know how much it was against my will. I felt affected.

A few years ago I had a discussion with a municipal board member in my home town who is also involved in a local football club. Like many others, he was scolding the AVG, the General Data Protection Regulation: you are no longer even allowed to take photos during an amateur match and put them in the club’s magazine. The GDPR is blamed for everything, while not much has changed in the legislation, only in the procedures and enforcement (and I'm very happy about that!). I asked him if he did publish pictures in the club magazine against the will of the young players before the GDPR. For example, the player who is picking his nose or whose pants have just dropped. Nice pictures, but the boy can suffer from it for quite a while. If everyone likes to be in the photo in the club magazine - and that really doesn't have to be recorded in a notarial deed in triplicate with eleven signatures, you also come a long way with a questioning look, a nod and common sense - then nothing is wrong. If I want to take pictures with children, I usually try to ask the parents and also see if the child wants it. The tricky part is that you don't want to disturb a scene, so you prefer to take a photo unnoticed, but even then I weigh up what is possible and what is not possible. And indeed, sometimes I don't know or I change my mind afterwards. And sometimes I break my own rules, especially when it comes to adults.

So I wasn't all that shocked at the young woman's diatribe at first. My first impulse was that she could be helpful and protective. But a little later, when I had left the mall Hoog Catharijne again, I was upset. Being a man is not easy these days, I thought. I know that from an early age I have always taken into account that someone else might see me as a threat, a potential rapist - no matter how much I try to be nice and friendly, or even because of that. As a young adult I sometimes came home in Odijk by bus from Utrecht late at night, I got off the bus at the Meent and sometimes a young woman got out as well. I will always make sure that I don't keep walking right behind her, so she could get the feeling that I'm following her. I greet her, she can approach me if she wants, I cross over and stay in front of her, so that if I have to turn into another road, she knows that this is not to follow her and she can also choose another route if she wants. There is a school close to my house here in Houten and I always love the scenes of children playing - I once learned in a course to observe and interpret the interaction between children - but I will never stop. I now realized - after that tirade - that during this period I regularly walk past a school and a childcare center with the dog that I am taking care of, where there are also all kinds of activities with children playing in the square during the school holidays, and with all the patience of the world I let the dog sniff everywhere, but the schoolyard I pass as fast as possible. This touched me in retrospect, I absorb the fear and insecurity of others and it is good not to let uncertainty or the feeling of 'threat' exist, but as a man alone you can no longer do it right.

So it was not so much the temperament of the woman or that she spoke to me that bothered me, but that no nuance was possible, you cannot do good. Then let's talk about the word 'rancid'. Originally this means smelly grease, then later also dirty in general. I've always had a strong opinion about that. ‘Dirty’ belongs to the category of hygiene and not of morality. Erotic is often associated with 'dirty' in the sense of 'disapproving'. Somewhere in my bookcase I must still have the book by Ivan Wolffers with the beautiful title 'Vies is Lekker' (‘Dirty is Delicious’, or 'Filthy Feels Fine', a sex education book for teenagers, popular in the 1970s). But dirty and wrong are two different things. A son of friends was completely obsessed with nudity when he was about eight years old. The boy sat next to me on the couch and flipped through a magazine, stopping at a photo of a sexy-dressed woman leaning forward and groping her crotch. It was a movie poster that I had also seen at a cinema in Utrecht. "Isn't that dirty?", the boy asked me. I didn't have to think twice about the answer, because I had already done that, so I answered without hesitation: "Well, as long as she washes her hands afterwards". The mother laughed out loud, but I was serious: the word ‘dirty’ belongs where it belongs. Years later, I was sitting next to a four-year-old boy on the couch, his mother busy in the kitchen. The mother was born in Africa and had brought her beautiful skin color from home and had given it to her child. "Am I dirty?", the boy asked me unexpectedly, but apparently in confidence. I was shocked, he must have heard this question at school from other toddlers. I don't know what was going on in his head, but I wanted ‘dirty’ back where it belongs as soon as possible. I took both his hands, caressed them carefully, examined his fingers and then said, "No, you're all clean."

This is a translation of the original Dutch blog 'Ranzig'. 

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