A decade spent staging stories on the farm with Roland Icking

From 2013 until 2022, when farmers in the Netherlands began facing drastic agricultural policies, Roland Icking travelled the Dutch-German border, photographing facades and the people and animals that live there.


It’s 2016 and Roland Icking is standing in a farm in Almsick, Germany asking a father of three to point his hunting rifle at him. He wants to get a photograph looking down the barrel, but the father, who flanks his young son, refuses. “I don’t point my rifle at people,” he says. “Of course not,” Roland says, “but this is just a game.” “No, not even in a game,” the father puts his foot down.

The photograph was suddenly on the line; the allure of involving the rifle was strong for Roland, but not if it was going to sour the memory. In any case, the photographer was beginning to love the strength of the father’s principles more than his original idea. “So we turned the tables,” he says. In the final shot Roland holds the shutter release and the family holds their hands, and weapons, to the sky in surrender. It’s a lesson that can be applied to much of the project – the rules of the farm are no joke, but that doesn’t mean fun can’t be had.


Roland Icking: FACadE, Germany, Vreden, Großemast (Copyright © Roland Icking, 2019)

Between the years 2013 and 2022, Roland Icking spent considerable time photographing farms on the Dutch-German border. The project experienced multiple growth spurts during this period. In its infancy, it was solely an architectural project. Roland wanted to capture facades typical to the region because of the resemblance they bore to human faces – you can ask any child, according to Roland, and they’ll be able to tell you that these buildings have eyes, mouths and noses. Then, about a year in, Roland started seeing the value of adding the occasional person or sheep in the foreground, and staging the composition.

What followed was an evolution into full-tilt mayhem. Roland was soon densely layering themes and stories in the frame, scouring districts like Borken, on the German side, and Achterhoek, the Netherlands, to find new scenes. Moving the camera further away from the central building, Roland’s images now showed a meeting of livestock and machinery, marching bands and chainsaw operators, German and Dutch police teams, all blended with help of digital composite photography.

“Certain procedures were always the same,” Roland says. He would drive by car until he found a farm that would work, and always ask for the tractor to be parked in the background. “The tractor is the pride of the farmer and the symbol of agriculture par excellence, indispensable for the photo, if available,” he says. The appearance of animals, like cows or horses, were prioritised over simpler actions, and Roland looked wherever possible to include unique objects. “What is rattling here is a potato sorting machine,” Roland describes one photograph, from 2019. “The process of which [...] requires the commitment of the whole family and almost completely fills the picture.”


Roland Icking: FACadE, Germany, Borken, Grütlohn (Copyright © Roland Icking, 2018)


Roland Icking: FACadE, Netherlands, Bronckhorst, Zelhem (Copyright © Roland Icking, 2017)


Roland Icking: FACadE, Germany, Stadtlohn, Almsick (Copyright © Roland Icking, 2016)

Roland also took direction from the farm’s owners. There is an image from 2018 where a family holds a smartphone and old framed portraits; the eldest son is pointing to a hayloft of the horse stable. It tells the story of his grandparents, who ran the farm during the Second World War and housed a Jewish family in the horse stable until the end of the war in 1945. “The hiding place was located slightly above the spot where the eldest son is pointing with his left index finger. You have to imagine that 70 German soldiers returning from Belgium were also quartered there in the last weeks of the war,” Roland says.

Years before, when Roland took his first farm photography in 2013, he set out to document a kind of architecture in decline. He speaks about how many of these farm sites are now being developed, demolished or put up for sale. But as the project unfolded, another collective threat to the livelihoods of farmers was playing out on the Dutch side of the border. In 2019, the term Stikstofcrisis (nitrogen crisis) was first used in the Netherlands, when the Dutch government attempted to reduce farm emissions by shutting down livestock farms. It reached a fever pitch the same year, when 2,000 tractors descended on The Hague and the far right took hold of the policy for political gain.

The situation is still unfolding, with many Dutch farmers having relocated to neighbouring Germany under these policies. The livestock agricultural industry in the Netherlands, which has grown and grown under government direction since the 1950s, now sits at the heart of a greater crisis of public trust. These images now function as a snapshot of that social crisis, when we consider the farmers abandoning their facades, and the stories associated with them.

For Roland, looking back on almost ten years of documentation summons memories of people who were often just as committed to the image as him. “For example, in the photo in Verden-Oldenkott, the Dutch police car was originally standing next to the German police car,” he tells us. It, of course, would do no good that they were facing the same way – these are meant to be policemen on two sides of the same border, moving in different directions was imperative! “The next day, when I was looking through the footage, I realised: ‘Damn, that doesn’t make any sense at all,’” Roland says. For the sake of the project, the policewoman came back and parked the car the right way, letting Roland take a new picture.


Roland Icking: FACadE, Netherlands, Aalten, Barlo(Copyright © Roland Icking, 2019)


Roland Icking: FACadE, Netherlands, Bronckhorst, Zelhem (Copyright © Roland Icking, 2017)


Roland Icking: FACadE, Netherlands, Bronckhorst, Zelhem (Copyright © Roland Icking, 2017)

This perfectionist attitude has plagued Roland too. Just as he looks fondly on his project, he is also haunted by the moments he didn’t manage to capture, on farms both sides of the border. “When I visited the man with all the animals in the photo in Aalten-Haart, he had two pregnant cows that needed a caesarean section. The vet had to come twice and I didn’t have the camera with me. That hurt.”

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Roland Icking: FACadE, Germany, Stadtlohn (Copyright © Roland Icking, 2019)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

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