Sem Langendijk deals with the human repercussions of gentrification and displacement
The Amsterdam-based photographer uses a blend of portraits and landscape photography to create a visual narrative asking viewers to muse upon their own perceptions of place.
- Olivia Hingley
- 21 September 2022
‘Home’ is a word many artists have tried to capture in their work; it’s an intriguing, yet simultaneously daunting concept to tackle. Mainly, because for each individual, it resonates in entirely different ways, invoking memories positive, negative or somewhere in-between. Sem Langendijk’s sensitive and meditative photobook Haven interacts with the loose ideas of place, identity and home, interrogating how they inform one another, and what happens when they are impacted by external forces.
Sem had something of an unconventional childhood. Before he was born his parents lived in an abandoned railroad station in Amsterdam, where, Sem explains, they joined a community “that was given the space and time to re-interpret the old building into homes and art studios”. It was an environment that “challenged the status quo”. With regeneration of the plot being continually postponed, Sem’s family and the community that lived there soon became attached to the space; his parents were involved in starting the first kindergarten, and later the first school.
However, by the 2000s the plan for ‘regeneration’ was finalised, and the building – home to numerous people – was demolished. Luckily, Sem explains that he and his family were able to move to houseboats, his dad having a shipyard on the harbour. But the event hasn’t been without its profound lasting effects. “The image of half of our home still standing while the other half was degraded to stones and rubble is still very vivid,” Sem recalls.
It was therefore at a very young age that Sem was given an insight into the significance and importance of ‘place’ as both an architectural idea, but also an intangible, personal one. Initially, he thought he might want to become an architect, interacting directly with the mechanics and meanings of the built environment. But ten years later he instead found himself studying photography at art school. It was only in the final years of his study, however, that he returned and reconnected with the story of his displacement. “I realised that time and time again, that I lost the environment I was accustomed to, leaving me displaced, uprooted,” Sem says. “It saddened and angered me, and I felt I could maybe, through photography, communicate something about this.”
This event, or perhaps more loosely its wider implications of gentrification and displacement, provided the springboard for the Haven project. Combining pictures of people with images of urban scenery, from different cities at different times, the collection of images is intended to invoke its viewers personal perceptions of place and its resonance. Using both portraits and landscape compositions was therefore an important approach for the photographer, as he explains: “I wanted to show the presence of people, community and a connection to a place.”
Sem really enhanced the human element of the project by “closing in” on the people he was working with. One such connection later resulted in one of the images that most affects Sem. Tommy, the young boy photographed outside, wearing mismatched socks with no shoes, and staring calmly down the lens, was growing up in conditions that echoed Sem’s own childhood, an abandoned shipyard community. When the photograph was taken in 2020, the community – which has existed for nearly 20 years – was soon to be demolished. “While looking at Tommy, I suddenly realised that I was looking at myself 20 years back in time. This child, who only knows this environment to be his world, his reality and home, would soon experience what it would be like to have this taken away,” Sem says. “I open with this image, so the perspective we start from is that of a child, innocent in the dynamics of displacement.”
Overall, Sem hopes the book raises questions about “ownership of the city”, leaving much room for his viewers to bring in their own interpretations and conclusions. Far from a rallying cry, the book is more of gentle nudge – albeit an extremely powerful nudge – toward reflection, pushing its audience to muse on how things can be done differently. As Sem puts it: “As the regeneration of these environments continues, there is a need to ask ourselves what kind of cities we want to create for the future, and how we want to live in them.”
GallerySem Langendijk : Haven (Copyright © Sem Langendijk, 2022)
Sem Langendijk : Haven (Copyright © Sem Langendijk, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.