There’s something entirely transfixing about a bonfire. It’s easy to catch your thoughts drifting off as you stare into the red and orange hues, only to be roused when a log finally gives in to the flames, restructuring the pile of burning debris; sparks piercing the empty sky above the blaze. Bonfires possess intriguing and conflicting qualities – in equal measures they’re terrifying and enthralling, dangerous and celebratory. Here, in England, we light them to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night every November, marking the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In Southern Louisiana, USA, bonfires are lit on Christmas Eve along the levees of the Mississippi River to guide Papa Nöel. In Turkey, it’s May which sees the controlled fires cropping up across the country to honour Hidirellez Day, believed to be the first day of spring and the awakening of nature.
Although often a mere practicality, used as a means of disposal – and sometimes a symbol of revolt or violence – bonfires have become a staple of ceremonial events across the globe. Year upon year, we turn up to our respective rituals with or without knowledge of their origin stories, to gawk at the flames. The Netherlands, in particular, is one country in which bonfires and history seem to continually overlap.
In 1584, on 10 July, Holland’s Prince William of Orange, also known as William the Silent, met a bitter, albeit momentous end when he became the first Head of State to be assassinated by a gun. His untimely death left the north-western European country in a bureaucratic predicament – William’s brother, his heir, was being held hostage in Spain at the time. In an apparent show of solidarity, Britain’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth, sent Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester to rule over Holland as a temporary governor-general. When he arrived the following year, he was greeted by a fireworks display including a huge tower spewing flames and sparks in all directions on the beach of Scheveningen, The Hague.
This same beach was to become the home of a fierce bonfire rivalry between two neighbourhoods – an annual event in which apartment-sized towers of wooden pallets are set alight, routinely producing the largest bonfires in the world.
It was on a visit to Scheveningen – the home of his father and grandparents – in 2013, that photographer Romke Hoogwaerts first encountered the event. “It was there in the distance when I was walking along the beach on New Year’s Eve,” he recalls, “I asked [my father] about it, and he said it was just a bunch of hooligans and that I should probably stay away. Of course, this didn’t help quell my curiosity. I wanted to know more, but there weren’t any books or significant articles about it at the time. I couldn’t believe it.” A few years later the department where Romke was working as a photo editor closed, providing a window of opportunity for him to return for New Year’s Eve in 2016, and begin his project, Vreugdevuur Scheveningen.
Vreugdevuur Scheveningen chronicles the competition which takes place between the neighbourhoods of Scheveningen-Dorp (the Noorderstrand) and Duindorp (the Zuiderstrand) on 31 December every year. At midnight, as people young and old look on, the fires are lit, each neighbourhood holding out for the title of the “highest fire”. For many, watching the ten-storey-high fires rage is the event of the year.
Although traceable to the arrival of Robert Dudley, Vreugdevuur Scheveningen, as it stands today, really began to take shape in the late 1940s. During the Second World War, The Hague was subjected to Nazi occupation. Amidst fears of an allied attack on the Dutch coastline, the beaches of Scheveningen (and many other parts of the neighbourhood) – which faced Britain in the distance – were shut off to locals, in place of a German defence line. “Young men were pulled out of their homes by Nazi soldiers yelling ‘Raus!’ – ‘come out!’ – and put to work in factories and on the front line,” Romke explains. “After the war ended, the kids of the neighbourhood spun that trauma into a tradition, where they pulled Christmas trees out of homes, yelling ‘Raus!’ along the way, stashing them to burn on New Year’s Eve,” he elaborates.
A resurgence of a tradition which had existed in The Netherlands since the introduction of the Christmas tree in the 17th Century, this new post-war ritual prompted violence. During the hunt for trees, fights regularly broke out between groups of young people, with many ending up wounded. No longer a twee celebration, this burning of Christmas trees was the product of a city damaged by war and a Nazi regime. Fires raged on almost every corner in The Hague, burning pallets, tires and, often, whole cars. “The ruckus was a cherished time for many in the region,” Romke explains, “If you ask almost anyone in The Hague if they have stories from the Kerstbomenjacht or the Rausen, their eyes will light up. They all have stories from those jubilantly violent times. My father does too – he took part until his friend fell off a roof during a police chase and died.”
Over the years, the violence only escalated, with groups clashing over fodder for their fires. In the 1980s, “police were faced with crowds armed with bats, chains and homemade hand grenades,” Romke tells us, “They realised that the more they fought back, the worse things got, so they started to organise parties around controlled bonfires, specifically trying to push the festivities to the beach.” It was in the 90s that “Scheveningen noticed that Duindorp’s beach fire was getting pretty big, and they weren’t about to let that happen,” Romke says, of the official start to the neighbourhoods’ rivalry.
On his first trip to document the spectacle, Romke “showed up with my Mamiya 7 and filled two rolls walking around the site. I made my way to this little portable office unit and asked if I could get access,” he recalls. “I think the next day was the first time I built up the courage to ask the crane operator if it was cool if I went up. He shrugged, so I just went for it. I’ll be honest with you, it was pretty terrifying. It was really foggy that day, and from up there, it was hard to see the beach below us.” Over the coming years, Romke made that trip to the top of the tower again and again, on-site almost every day, as well as attending team meetings and preparations.
Vreugdevuur Scheveningen consists of a photo series collated in a book, along with archival imagery, and a corresponding film full of the same nervous and excited energy Romke experienced during his first ascent in the crane. Each mirrors the other’s narrative, featuring congruent opening and closing shots: a view of the spot Scheveningen’s tower would be built on, and the piles of ash in the aftermath. The photographs chronicle the lifespan of one neighbourhood’s entry, weaving historical context throughout. “It was important to me that the photographs live in the same context as the historical narrative, so that the past flows into the present within one coherent emotional storyline – it’s the same people, just another generation,” Romke outlines.
It was this want that influenced his decision to shoot solely in black and white, providing visual as well as emotional and tonal cohesion. “I also wanted to abstract the massive fire and felt that I might be able to render its texture in a more satisfying way in monochrome,” Romke adds. “To make that abstraction possible, I needed a really fast film, and nothing beats the grain of high-speed black and white.” As a result, the images are ominous, the contrast of the tones creating drama and intensity. Scattered throughout these melodramatic shots are depictions of real community, however. “I remember Peter Big, a forklift driver there in his late 50s, who often had his 12-year-old grandson begrudgingly sitting beside him,” Romke reminisces, “He was a unique character, lovably loud-mouthed and covered in tattoos that celebrated the neighbourhood,” adding that, “he always had a Heineken in the forklift’s cupholder…”
Whereas the photographs convey the sentiment of tradition and the importance of this event to The Hague, the film is fascinating on an altogether different plane. It provides a glimpse into how this profusely dangerous (if not done properly) event takes place and the people who make it happen. Techno blares as Romke makes his way slowly to the top of the tower, made all the more bizarre and surreal by how at ease the locals are with being atop what is, essentially, a 30-metre-high pillar of Jenga blocks.
Still or moving, the images in Vreugdevuur Scheveningen are acutely observant – taken by a fly-on-the-wall. They are probing but reverent, qualities Romke attributes to his upbringing. Born in Atlanta to Dutch parents, he had lived on four continents by the time he was a teenager, finally settling in New York City nearly a decade ago. “It made me sensitive to my own place in the world,” he tells us. “Wherever I went I was an outsider, so I kept to myself, observing the world around me. That behaviour was catalysed by my being on the spectrum. I became very sensitive to the politics of representation and exploitative power structures, and my inherent complicity within that,” he continues, adding that, “It made it difficult for me to feel comfortable taking pictures there. I kind of externalised the process, and I think that’s why I started my photo career in interviewing and editing.”
Whether a meditation on the importance of tradition, history and community, documentation of a fascinating spectacle, or simply the story of the construction of a tower, Vreugdevuur Scheveningen is captivating. From catching the antics of local children at the base of the structure to hanging out with Peter Big, “there were a lot of memorable moments,” Romke concludes. Ultimately, however, “nothing tops the fire itself. It’s so big, it puts you in a state of trance. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Vreugdevuur Scheveningen will be launching at the New York Art Book Fair, with a signing on 22 September at 3pm. Published by Gnomic Book, the 160-page publication will be available in an edition of 500, featuring more than seventy photographs and texts in both Dutch and English. The full film will be available later in 2018.