We Bristol'd and Caerleon'd. We ate, drank and walked. We found an accidental Rothko in the hills and a Banksy on a wall. We saw lovely friends and met lovely new ones. We found color absolutely everywhere.
Just for the heck of it, Elger and I travelled to Edinburgh for three days before Christmas with two of our good friends and their champion traveller of a son. We EasyJet'd and AirBnB'd our way to the stony city, which is 360 degrees of lovely of spires, swooping streets (full of quirky thrift stores and useful brick-a-brac, like RAF roundel cufflinks), wind gusts, reassuring hills and shockingly short daylight hours. Aside from my tendency to walk on the right side of the sidewalk and thus into oncoming pedestrian traffic by the left-side-driving Scots, it was a nice, meandering holiday in a city that somehow felt like home, especially after I scored a blue flatcap (at the airport, in the midst of haggis and a mind-boggling assortment of tartan.)
A wedding for two truly excellent people - a Dutch gal and an Italian fella - brought Elger and I to Genoa in northern Italy, where we spent the first couple of days navigating the shadowy, nearly claustrophobic streets with two other equally excellent friends - just some Dutchies, but they were too cool for school as well as big ol' nerds - eating all the brioche we could get our hands on.
On the wedding day, we Netherlands-originating guests stood and sat when the Italian guests did, and read along to the thoughtfully translated Catholic service in an ancient stone church in the hills, even cooler due to the cloudy day outside. Elger had his film camera at his side, and the D800 was my constant companion, although we and the cameras were just happy guests at this wedding.
Before we got to dig into what was sure to be the most epic meal of our lives - an Italian wedding reception in Camogli - Elger got horribly sick, and we were lucky to make it to the train station and then fumble our way back to the airbnb where we stayed in Genoa. Being home-away-from-homebound made the view of the alley below our sixth-story apartment my photo subject for the last two days, as well as getting caught up on "Knight Rider" and "Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan" with Italian overdubbing (thankfully, Shatner's voice yelled "KHAAAAAN"). I made several trips to the supermarket, as did our awesomely kind airbnb host, to stock up on medicine and Gatorade for Elger and pansoti and pesto, mostly for me - plus taking the excuse to snag more gelato.
It was a much more lived-in feeling city than Vienna, and that's more reason to love it. What we saw was fantastic, and maybe not this year, but absolutely some other summer soon, I will be back! Above all else: congratulations/gefeliciteerd/auguri, Sabrina and Simo!
When I first (re)arrived in Groningen in the summer of 2011, I had just left my job as a staff photographer at a daily newspaper in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was taking the plunge to become a freelancer, ambiguous and ambitious as it was. It was by choice, but also not: I loved being a staff photographer, but when I was finally able to legally immigrate to the Netherlands, I jumped without looking back.
Still, I loved the unpredictability of every new day at a paper as well as the certainty that there would be a steady stream of assignments for me to cover. Granted, there were usually at least five of them crammed into each day, and it was always a race against speed limits and dead lines to get it all done on time. But I really, really loved it.
I still love photography desperately, and I have been lucky to get to do some very meaningful work for NGOs in the past couple years, as well as to photograph the weddings of many international and Dutch couples throughout the Netherlands.
That is all still true, but early in 2012, I sent an email in my then very tentative Dutch to a publication called the Universiteitskrant, which, at the time, was a weekly independent paper that covered the massive community encompassed within the University of Groningen. Then, I emailed them again in May. Then again, in November. Then, I stopped trying - until, a year later, in December of 2013, I had built up the confidence to actually just walk in the damn door and ask the staff if they needed someone like me.
By that time, they had become an online publication with daily news and a print edition three times a year, and they needed more writers. It wasn't a photography job, but it was a job at a newspaper. I went in for an interview and found out that I had been hired to work for them as a freelancer via email while I was actually in a guest bedroom at my brother's house in North Carolina, visiting home for Christmas. It was a really great gift: a job!
So, I have been writing at least two articles a week since the beginning of January, and for the past two months I have also served as the International Editor for the paper. I translate and proofread the English-language articles written by the freelancers, as well as aiming to be the go-to person for the growing international student community in Groningen.
Even though it's by and large a writing gig, I have managed to take some photos I'm really proud of to go along with my written work - mostly in English, but a couple of times in Dutch. Since the paper follows the academic year's schedule, we're off for the summer, so I have the time to sit back, reflect on how incredibly lucky I feel to get to work so hard on something I love again, and share some of the work from my first six months of which I'm the most proud.
Bram Reinders (right), founder of the Facebook page Groningers in Revolt, waits along with other protestors for the arrival of Dutch coalition member Diederik Samsom at Vita Nova in Middelstum. Residents of the province are fed up with a perceived lack of action by the national government to protect them from and compensate them for the damage from the man-made earthquakes resulting the extraction of natural gas.
Coalition member and Labor MP Diederik Samsom tries to address the concerns of frustrated Groningen residents while flanked by national media at a town hall meeting in Middelstum to address the ongoing earthquake crisis in the province. This is the article covering the event (in Dutch):
Samsom stapt hol van de leeuw binnen
Love at first sight at welcoming ceremony
The rest are articles and interviews that I am proud of:
Sexy Science - the undefinable but infinitely fascinating field of sexology at the RUG
Louis is Opening Up - a Chinese exchange student is out, for the first time in his life.
We need internationals - on how the future of the university depends on incoming foreign students
A Lousy Annual Tradition - PhD students working based on financial aid are caught between the tax services and their not-exactly employers
Victims of Identity Theft Keep Coming - a scam to steal student's identities result in hundreds of thousands of Euros being wrongly claimed, and some internationals are only now realizing they're victims
One of the choirs that I am lucky enough to sing with - G.S.M.G. Bragi's grootkoor - was invited to participate in a magically atmospheric interactive concert series called Adventurous. The project was first and foremost the vision of Capella Frisiae and soon thereafter the Northern Consort was incorporated. The Kielzog Boys Choir and Bragi were fortunately invited to perform along with these talented musicians, whose visuals and sound engineering were brought to life by Elsina Jansen, Hans Hof, David de Jong and Yorick Zwerver.
The concerts were held in two churches with bright white walls and rich lighting, evocative audio engineering and a permeable boundary between the performers and the audience. Barber's Opus 11 brought me to the verge of tears every time, and the chance to sing one of my very favorite choir songs again - "Sure on the Shining Night" also by Barber - was a beautiful gift.
On Friday night we performed in der Aa Kerk in Groningen, one of the iconic churches in the city, which is also currently hosting an exhibit of the World Press Photo winners through the Clear Foto Festival. The soaring atmospheric music was heart-breaking as it was, but to quietly wander through the powerful images of the range of the human experience, from hopeless suffering to unbridled joy, was an overwhelming experience. I took photos that night with my phone, but I had to bring out the real camera for Saturday's concert.
Kris van der Veen is a busy man. Everything he is involved with pertains to human rights and equality. Since 2011, he has been a member of Groenlinks in Groningen. He is the head of LGBT Groningen Foundation, and the organization won the Glass Candle at this year’s Noordervrijheid, an annual award given by Amnesty, for their work on International Day Against Homophobia and counseling youth in Groningen. He works for Kopland, formerly Home and Retreat Foundation, a domestic violence organization, on whose behalf he spoke publicly on International Women’s Day 2013. At the moment he is focused on editing a documentary about the reality of daily life for LGBT people in Russia and the current law which forbids so-called “gay propaganda.”
“At the end of 2012, I formalized a plan to make a film. I was alarmed by the plans to pass the anti-gay law in Russia and I wanted to look into what this would mean for the daily lives of Russians, in particular transgender people, lesbians and gays,” said van der Veen.
As a result of the sister city bond between Groningen and the Russian city of Murmansk, the LGBT Groningen Foundation received a request to get in touch with the LGBT organization there. After initial contact, the idea to make a film emerged.
“I reported my intention to do the documentary to a commission for the Netherlands-Russia Friendship Year. The committee consists of individuals from the Russian and Dutch governments. The Russian government was aware of what we were planning to do. Because of the city bond, I was invited to Murmansk and I acquired a visa.”
In spite of the careful preparations, the trip was not without challenges. Kris and his crew were arrested by the police after giving a presentation at a camp which was hosting a weekend focused on human rights activities. The presentation was given to an audience of merely 15 people. The police deemed the presentation a political activity as opposed to cultural, which was problematic as the visa which van der Veen had received was for “cultural relations.” For years, exchange trips between Groningen and Murmansk have been conducted with the cultural relations visa. The police, in spite of this, insisted that the crew needed to have a political activity visa instead.
After their arrest, van der Veen and the crew were interrogated by three different branches of the police: regular uniformed police, immigration police and the secret police. “Eventually the immigration service fined us because they claimed that we had an invalid visa,” said van der Veen.
“During the interrogation, they were especially curious about which interviews and questions I had asked [to LGBT people in Murmansk]. They were relentless about it and eventually they formulated something to charge us with, that we were in violation of the anti-gay propaganda law. They really pressed us and told us that we would have to appear in court the next day.”
“In the meantime, the Russian LGBT community had taken to Facebook to post updates drawing attention to our arrest. There were several Russian human rights activists who supported us by spreading the word. All eyes were on Murmansk.”
Officially, van der Veen and his crew were let go on a technicality. It is highly likely that the attention of the media also played a part in their release. “After we were let go, I was thinking a lot about what the real reasons could have been that we were arrested. I was anxious, but I was also really angry. I wondered, ‘Did you arrest me because I’m gay? Because other people are gay? Is that why we were interrogated for hours? Where were the police when a man was beaten and attacked because he was gay?’ That feeling... it really shook me up,” van der Veen said.
The situation for activists and LGBT organizations in Russia remains precarious. Under the anti-gay propaganda law, it is officially illegal for them to work or even exist.
“It has become very difficult, not only because of the anti-gay propaganda law that states that non-traditional families cannot be promoted, but also because, according the law, organizations in Russia cannot receive international money. If they do receive donations from abroad, they have to report it through a non-government organization. If they neglect to do that, the organization will be fined €12,500. The Russian government itself is also working on a law that makes it possible to remove children from gay and lesbian couples without cause. I think it’s absolutely terrible.”
According to van der Veen and many others, Vladimir Putin is largely responsible for the introduction of these laws.
“Putin wants to present himself as a reasonable man who wants peace.” This self-presentation strikes van der Veen as a ruse to distract from the very real problems in Russia, namely joblessness and domestic violence.
For the next three years, van der Veen is banned from entering Russia. “This doesn’t change my opinion. I met so many great Russian people who I would love to meet again in the future.”
“The people that we interviewed implored us: ‘Make this film! Make sure that this film gets made!’ And it will.”
To learn more about van der Veen and the documentary, “5,000 Rubles,” visit
Reporter Amnesty International Region DFG
This article was originally published in Dutch on the Amnesty International website for the Region of Drenthe, Friesland and Groningen on October 14: www.amnesty.nl
When Kees got in touch with me at the end of the summer to begin thinking of scheduling a time for the Stranger Things Have Happened promotional photos for the upcoming season, I said to him, "It's the most wonderful time of the year"- and through the jest, that's absolutely true. I love getting to hang out with the Strangers and to come up with ways to convey their work through a photo campaign. Thomas took the photos and styled them into the final images here, and I have to confess: normally I HATE to the point of feeling nauseated seeing photos with selective black and white AND with text. I LOVE what Thomas did with the shoot. Like, completely. He made the photos even cooler than they were to begin with. I love the creative collaboration this year leading me to being surprised by the final product, and I hope the Strangers like the photos, too. Come see them at their monthly shows at Simplon - their next show is November 7!