Rijnwijk is a working-class district in the city of Arnhem, east Netherlands. Growing up in a neighbouring village, as a child, photographer Erik van Cuyk was always curious to see what was behind the gate of this notorious community. Due to its residents’ reputation for living off benefits, and many of the houses being used for squatting, Rijnwijk was known as a “no-go area”.
The neighbourhood has been under threat of demolition since the early 2000s. Many residents have already left, or are being forcibly removed, but, among the rubble, there are 13 families who refuse to go.
Prompted by the growing number of demolitions, and curious to see what keeps these people there, two years ago, Van Cuyk finally stepped through the gates that had fascinated him as a child. But, it took time to build relationships, and it was four months before Van Cuyk felt comfortable enough to take his first photograph. Now, after over a year, he has self-published his first photobook, Rijnwijk My District.
Before Van Cuyk became a photographer, he was a lawyer — “I studied law because I thought I would be working in a just society, but the reality was very corporate,” he says. After a short stint as a musician and then a consultant, Van Cuyk now works for the local council in Arnhem, alongside creatingpersonal documentary projects. In his photography, Van Cuyk tends to focus on “things that disappear, or things that nobody seems to pay attention to”. Perhaps, it is the same motivation that led him to become a lawyer that eventually took him to Rijnwijk: to bring justice to things that have the tendency to be overlooked.
“The atmosphere is like a war zone,” says Van Cuyk. “Arnhem is a civil society with high social standards, but when you go behind the gate to Rijnwijk, it is not up to the typical Dutch expectations.” But, set within an individualistic society that praises wealth, order, and success, Van Cuyk found many aspects of this community to be admirable. “There is more connection between the residents there,” he explains, “there is a sense of community – a warmness and kindness – they look after each other”.
Van Cuyk’s book combines powerful double-page portraits of the Rijnwijk’s remaining residents with photographs that reveal intimate details about their homes. Although large parts of the neighbourhood are neglected or demolished, the book presents us with a community that is still very much alive.
Some of the residents in Rijnwijk have lived next to the same neighbours for 70 years and were distressed to see their friends or parent’s homes demolished. “There are so many memories that are demolished along with a home,” says the photographer. “When people ask me what these people were like, I can only say that they are just like you and me.”