The photographer spent two years photographing the ADM community. His images capture a way of life founded on freedom and openness
Sem Langendijk’s project Amsterdam — Agency is not just about the former ADM (de Amsterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij) community, which it depicts. The series documents the squat’s residents, and the built environment they constructed, but the images also communicate something more. “I don’t know any of the people I photographed, ” says Langendijk. “It was important to explore the openness and transience that can take place during the making of a portrait; this is a representation of how we can interact in cities.”
Established in 1997, the ADM was a squatted shipyard that occupied the city’s docklands for over two decades until it was evicted in early 2019. It takes its name from the Amsterdam drydock company that originally inhabited the site, and transformed the shipyard into a hub of creativity, acting as an infoshop (a place where people can access anarchist or autonomist ideas) and a social centre, which organised events including large arts and culture festivals. Langendijk photographed the community during the last two years of its existence. “Does a community have the right to claim land, after having lived there for over 20 years?” asks the text that accompanies the series; Langendijk hopes the project will encourage us to consider this.
“Going back to that community was like going back to my childhood and trying to show a more adult perspective”
Squats are often associated with marginalised communities — those who have chosen to segregate themselves from mainstream society or have been pushed to do so by economic, social and/or political factors. Langendijk perceived the ADM community as different. The squat’s inhabitants endeavoured to create a cultural free haven. Rather than isolate themselves from the surrounding city, they were involved in it, espousing the openness and freedom that defined their way of life. “They created an atmosphere that invited people from around the world to take part in what they were doing,” reflects Langendijk. “When you create spaces like this in the structure of the city, you can inspire people to engage with it in new ways.”
The photographer grew up in a similar community — a disused railway station in a former ship wharf called Westerdok. His affinity with the subject was one of the reasons he decided to explore it. “Going back to that community was like going back to my childhood and trying to show a more adult perspective,” he says, “analysing the value of those things and also reevaluating what was special about those areas”. His images reflect that approach. Langendijk’s subjects look at ease and he draws out details in the landscape that may have easily been overlooked. The work is honest and respectful: “I am trying to communicate the warm feeling that I have towards the community, towards places like that,” he says. “I have a subjective point of view and I try to translate it through my photography.”Amsterdam — Agency is part of a wider series, The Docklands Project, which documents the transition of former harbour areas in different cities, particularly at a time when such locations are highly sought after. The project also explores Red Hook in Brooklyn and waterfront developments across London.
Amsterdam — Agency is part of a wider series, The Docklands Project, which documents the transition of former harbour areas in different cities, particularly at a time when such locations are highly sought after. The project also explores Red Hook in Brooklyn and waterfront developments across London.
The first time Langendijk visited the ADM community he was introduced by someone he knew. “I stayed for almost two weeks during winter because they were away and I could stay in their caravan,” he says. “By being present and engaging with their way of life, I broke down a few barriers. And then, a couple of years later when I returned, people still recalled me being there a few years earlier.”
Familiarity was not the only factor that enabled Langendijk to make the portraits he did. Finding common ground with his subjects and taking the time to speak with them allowed him to create a bond. “For a brief moment, you just connect with somebody,” he says. “I think that is the beauty of portrait photography.” By the end of the project, Langendijk was able to come and go as he wished.
“Most of the time people still need to make room for big developments”
When asked to choose one image to speak about in detail, the photographer selects a still of a dog slumped across an old couch. The subject is emblematic of that feeling of “coming home” he explains. It also embodies something else: “It is about the freedom that people had to make things in their environment,” he says. “The innovative things that I encountered could not have happened in a place where there was no space for making.”
Together, the images depict an alternative approach to life. “There is an ongoing debate about whether people should have a say in what happens to their surroundings,” says Langendijk. In the ADM they did, and its inhabitants worked to integrate their ideas into mainstream society. “But, most of the time people still need to make room for big developments,” he continues. The series should encourage us to rethink our understanding of urban space — who owns it and how it should be used.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.