For some reason, Anna Beeke felt safe walking the midnight streets of Amsterdam with nothing but her Hasselblad camera for protection.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I probably should have been more concerned than I was.”
Over the past four years, the young photographer has seen and photographed nearly every part of the city. She has driven sometimes hundreds of miles to spend three days or a few weeks drifting and talking to people, trying to document the spirit of the place in pictures.
A few months ago, some of her work found its way into Prism Magazine, an up-and-coming photography publication. They’re striking, complex shots, capturing Amsterdam’s resilient character amid the detritus left by industry on its way out of town. She doesn’t focus on landmarks, but the pictures are clearly Amsterdam.
Even so, Beeke must not be satisfied, because she can’t seem to finish the project.
“I just don’t know how to cap it off. Every time I visit, there’s more to document,” she said, which brings her back again and again.
Her interest in the place started back in 2008. As a fresh-faced documentary photography student at New York’s International Center of Photography, she drove through Amsterdam on a trip with a classmate. The urban decay caught her eye.
“It was just the moment after the economy collapsed,” she said. “There were foreclosures all over the country, but in Amsterdam the abandoned houses had been empty for 30 years.”
The degree she was pursuing at the time demanded a large-scale documentary project. All the falling-down structures seemed like a prime opportunity to do something artistic and possibly dangerous, the two most vital ingredients of documentary photography.
“I don’t think I really broke any laws,” she said. “I never kicked in any doors. There was usually an open window.”
She recounted stepping over spongy rotted floor boards and finding empty beer cans, evidence of squatters. The tilting homes made for some excellent shots, but as Beeke spent more time in the city, life began to shine through the run-down setting.
In the wee hours of a foggy morning, Beeke was trying to capture the eerie street light glow when she was approached by guy she knows only as Scarfella.
Scarfella, a local rapper with an intimidating moniker, was waiting for a bus and had a good excuse for being outside at such an ungodly hour. Beeke didn’t.
“He wanted to know what I was doing out on the street,” she said. “We got to talking and over the next two years I photographed both he and his family. He just called me the other day.”
Her later photos focus less on the unsightly aspects of Amsterdam and more on its people.
Currently, Beeke is pursuing her master of fine arts degree in photography at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and hasn’t been back to Amsterdam in eight months. Her latest work is a study of upstate New York and Vermont forests. The nature scenes are a marked departure from her Amsterdam images, but she said they’re less different from what one might think.
“Forests can be very beautiful in the day, and forbidding at night,” she said, which is arguably the case with much of Amsterdam.
This spring, she’ll graduate with her MFA and plans to use her newfound free time to come back to Amsterdam and finish her project. Though she’s not sure quite how to do it, she hopes to either make a book or have some sort of show in the city.
“Something positive,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to think this is negative work.”