Erik van Cuyk’s diptychs of young skaters and BMXers express the strength and individuality of youth

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Presenting each participant’s portrait alongside images of their favourite place, van Cuyk documents over 100 young people, as they carve out spaces for expression within the built environment

Compared to older demographics, children and young people have been less affected by the physical effects of Covid-19itself. However, in terms of the social and educational impacts of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the repercussions have been disproportionately severe. As schools and universities closed, pupils were forbidden from socialising. And a looming uncertainty in the short term casts an impenetrable shadow on their plans for the future. 

“At that age, you should be among peers,” says Dutch photographer Erik van Cuyk, “away from your parents at home or the couch in front of the TV”.  Van Cuyk was always fascinated by youth: a transitory period of one’s life that straddles childhood and adulthood. With two teenage children himself, the photographer recognises that it is a significant period in one’s life. He observes that during our youth we make important choices impacting how we will fit into  larger systems of society later on. “But the question is whether the system is right. I see goals such as gaining money and status as suppressing important values ​​like community spirit, integrity and creativity,” asserts van Cuyk. “I am no longer young, but I still feel a kind of pain, a melancholy, when I look back at that period.” 

In February 2020, van Cuyk began working on a project about youth, specifically skaters, BMXers, freerunners and freestyle footballers. “[These young people] make their own way in a built environment that was initially designed for another function,” he explains. However, right after making his first portrait, the Netherlands declared its first Covid-19 lockdown. “That gave an extra dimension to the project,” he says, “the system stopped for a while, you could feel and see it in public space”. 

Over the next year and a half, van Cuyk continued to collaborate with young people, producing over 100 diptychs of Rembrandt-style portraits alongside a photograph of each participant’s favourite place. “Rembrandt’s portraits express a universal and timeless power,” he explains. By mimicking the Dutch painter’s aesthetic, Van Cuyk removes the young people from their social contexts, framing them with the same universality and timelessness. “This gives them more power. And I want to give them that. I want to show that they [can] stand on their own.”

Below, van Cuyk introduces us to six of his participants.

Negara, 22 , Skater

“In the Netherlands, there is a tendency to deny social issues, and then there is no proper discussion on matters like discrimination or inclusiveness. I really hate that.”

Negara is studying cybersecurity governance and has been skating for about four years. Skating means she can be outside at any time of the day without having to think about anything. As a skater, Negara is concerned about the place of women and people from minority backgrounds; the skate world is, just like many other spheres, still dominated by men.

Mart, 18, Freestyle football player

“My view on the future? Um…man, that’s too big a question.”

 Mart just finished high school and has been accepted by the Utrecht School of the Arts. He is a freestyle footballer and lives in Maarssen, a town in the middle of the Netherlands. There is not much  for young people to do in Maarssen and Mart uses freestyling to meet new people. Training is as much a part of his routine as eating breakfast is; it feels  strange not to do it.

Ahmed, 22, Street football

 “I used to drive everyone in the neighbourhood crazy. I was the best at football. A cousin of mine once called me Ballieman. I know that is a Surinamese word and we are Turkish, but I never changed it.”

Ahmed has his dream job working at a football school for young people. He practices his football skills daily in a square near his parents’ home.

Siem, 16, Skater

“I like to be with my friends most of all, hanging out and practising new sick tricks.”

Siem still lives at home with his parents in Deventer, east Netherlands. He skates every day, sometimes for more than eight hours. He met most of his friends at the skatepark – it’s his world, and every skater there knows him. Siem is known for being “reckless” and wants to go far as a skater. The day after the portrait shoot, he broke his foot. 

Kasper, 18, Freerunner

 “Everyone has experienced that feeling, for example when jumping over a ditch, of ‘am I going to make it or not? Am I ready?’ I search for that feeling every day. It is important to keep listening to it as an advisor for important decisions.”

Freerunning, also known as parkour, is the practice of jumping between buildings, bridges and complex urban environments. In addition to the physical benefits, freerunning also builds mental strength. Kasper recently moved from the east of the country to Rotterdam. He has made many friends through freerunning, but, besides that, the street is a source of inspiration for art and photography. Kasper shows his work under the pseudonym @biiiepbop.

Playground 2020 by Erik van Cuyk is  on show at Internationaal FhotoFestival Naarden 2021 in the Netherlands until 03 August 2021.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.