John Davies

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 meaning.

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".
other essays:
Rural Transitions (France)
The River and the City - Florence (Italy)
San Gottardo (Switzerland)
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Photo and material Copyright John Davies 1976-2011