The Promised Land
Starting to write this on a frosty but sunny spring
morning with birds chattering noisily outside. I am, yet again
sitting inside my computer screen, trying to recollect some of
my experiences from last summer in Groningen, the most northern
city in The Netherlands.
I remember one evening I was in the company of a few people who
work for Noorderlicht along with the French photographer, Antoine
d’Agata, like me he was invited over to make photographs
of the city. They talked about an incident that happened in the
Promised Land, I was curious so we decided to visit this place.
On arrival we first enjoyed cordial company and light refreshment.
In fact, it was no less than a dimly lit bar with a hint of tension
in the air. It could easily have been Cardiff or Liverpool but
here I was in the centre of Groningen and with questions on my
mind still thinking of ways to portray this city:
This was my second trip to Groningen in 2003, on this occasion
I had been here a week exhaustively exploring the topography and
recording views of the city. Often accompanied by Ype who acted
as my guide, resourceful facilitator and tolerant companion.
A curiosity for me was to see a city centre devoid of public monuments
or memorials and without any statues symbolising heroes or battles
won. My intention had been to make panoramic views of Groningen
and at the same time to make documentary images that reflect the
historical and social-economic structure of this city. Within
these observations I wanted to make a set of pictures which were
visually coherent as well as interesting. To this end I began
to focus my attention on the symbolic and strategic use of water.
Potent symbols, like water, can be useful visual vehicles that
help communicate and express feelings that go beyond the apparent
formal material record. So, I began to document the water features
and the waterfront developments old and new.
People shape the character of their environment.
The environment also helps to shape the character of the people
who live within it.
I became particularly interested in the new developments
on the outskirts of the city centre where water features and lakes
have been created and incorporated within new building structures
to create an outlook onto “nature”. I am stimulated
when I recognise a sense of ambiguity within our urban environments.
I am particularly attracted to areas of tension, which are created
between contrasting elements in the landscape and often found
where natural and manufactured elements co-exist. It is when I
perceive this tension that I begin to recognise some sense of
It had not been easy for me to be inspired in making images of
Groningen – the city is well ordered and maintained, self-contained
and controlled and altogether a pleasant environment to be part
of. These elements of order and control did not help me with my
image making and my desire to capture areas displaying tension,
ambiguity and the surreal within the city’s topography.
So, back to my last evening in the Promised Land, these thoughts
pass by. Realising the Promised Land can be a state of mind for
some and a physical reality for others I reflect on the images
I have made. It suddenly springs to mind to photograph people
entering this city – as they arrive in this Promised Land.
The following day I set up my camera and tripod at the central
steps of the railway station entrance and record the commuters
and visitors as they walk through the doors to enter the streets
of Groningen, the first time for some.
The camera I was using is ideally suited to record wide panoramic
views and not for moving people. I return a week later with an
appropriate camera. Without selection I try to record every one
as they walk towards me, only stopping to reload film. After 120
exposures and more than 200 people recorded I finish.
© John Davies 2004
written for Noorderlicht
and the exhibition catalogue, "City of Promise".
Images may not be reproduced in any form
or by any means without the permission of John Davies
Photo and material Copyright © John Davies 1976-2011