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'This is me, listen to me, look at me!' Frank interview with Erwin Olaf on life, love and death

This week, photographer Erwin Olaf died, aged 64. Just before his 60th birthday, we interviewed him about his work, life and love. Olaf also spoke candidly about his illness, how it forced him to make choices ánd made him milder. 'I am in renewal,' he said. And: 'In my life, I have done everything I wanted to do.'

Illness forces clear choices

'I was only 36 when I was diagnosed with hereditary pulmonary emphysema. It was 1996 and I was still smoking and blowing. The doctor said I would be in a wheelchair within five years if I didn't stop. On the metro back from the AMC, I suddenly came to an insight. At school, I was being bullied. That bullying was the reason I started smoking, because then suddenly I did belong. I wasn't going to let those bullies catch me after so many years, was I? Crying, I smoked my last joint two days later. Cigarettes had been my companion since I was fourteen, so it was hard to say goodbye.

Back then, when I had to fill in a questionnaire at the AMC lung department, I could still tick 'no' to all the questions: do you have problems when vacuuming, when tying your shoelaces, when climbing stairs? Now I have to answer 'yes' to everything. Cycling is something I do electrically and even lifting a shopping bag is starting to become difficult. Lately, it has become more frequent that my heart is racing because my organs are asking for oxygen when my lungs cannot give it enough. This can lead to a heart attack, and it feels like I am suffocating. This is intense and frightening.

My illness forces me to choose better what I will still do in my life and what not. Recently, I directed the film A glaring flaw had to cancel. An emotional decision, as I had been working on that project for six years. But it doesn't work any more: where I used to be able to work long days for months on end, now I can only manage a week at most. I plan more quality time with my husband Kevin. This winter, we are going on a month-long holiday. I don't necessarily need to climb a mountain anymore, I'd rather watch it now. If you keep aspiring to things you can no longer do, you become unhappy.

At the time of diagnosis, they said I would live to be 60; now the pulmonologist thinks I will reach 70. I am in the extension stage. The course of the process saddens me, but I am not afraid of dying. In my life, I have done everything I had wanted to do. Last year, the Rijksmuseum acquired a collection of five hundred of my works, there will be a major exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and a beautiful retrospective book, and then another exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. I have secured my legacy.'

Power is dangerous

'When I was 17, I was assaulted by the headmaster of my secondary school. At the St Nicholas party I had to play Black Pete and he wanted me to come and stay, because I had to put on make-up early the next morning. I thought he was a scary man, but yes, he was the headmaster, so I did as he told me. He gave me double drink with vodka in it. I had no idea, because double drinks had only just existed and I had never drunk alcohol before. After two glasses, he started pressuring me to confess that I was gay. "Just write it down," he said, because I couldn't even pronounce the word 'homosexual'. Whimpering, I did as he asked - I had wanted to tell my parents after my final exams and hated that he was now the first to hear. Then I puked all over the loo. After a shower, he laid me naked on the bed. He started sitting on me and I stiffened completely. When he asked if I didn't want it and I shook no, he sent me to the spare room in my bare bottom. Like St Nicholas, the next day he kept hitting me with his staff on my puff trousers.

After I told my parents and it was reported, I had to meet the Education Inspector. He sat, along with the councillor of Education and the headmaster of my school, at a big conference table, a box of cigars on the table. My mother was not allowed in, so I sat facing them by myself. "Yes, Erwin," they said, "there are things in life you want so badly that you start fantasising that they really happened." I became furious and replied, "So you think I fantasise about having sex with a fat man with a nose that grows hair on it? Then I hurled the cigar box at them and walked out. Just a few days later, the headmaster was no longer standing in the hall watching students; within three months he was marrying a physics teacher and at the graduation ceremony he was "indisposed".

Funnily enough, it didn't have that much impact on me. It was a different time, people treated it differently than they do now, with . I never actually felt like a victim. But I think it is one reason why I have a lot of trouble with power: it made me realise that you should never abuse power. Twice I had sex with a model, but in both cases they were the ones who seduced me and they became long-term affairs. I have always been very conscious of the inequality between me and models. Because as a photographer or director, it's easy to think that the other person likes you as much as you like them, but stand in the model's spot for a moment, under those lights and with a camera facing you, then you feel how vulnerable you are in that position.'

Photographer Erwin Olaf (1959-2023) ©Brenda van Leeuwen

Anger must be controlled

'I can be a temper tantrum. My mother hated arguing and practised my two brothers and me in being peaceful with each other and being clear about what we didn't like, without using nasty words. But I am more like my father in that respect - he could be loudly godfathered and very direct. I can do great damage verbally because I sometimes explode and then use overly strong words; in some friendships, this has led to cooling periods of months.

A turning point was the moment I saw myself back on television, in 2012. Because a snack bar owner had banned my husband and me from kissing on the street, I had organised a kiss-in. In the process, a GeenStijl reporter pushed an ex-playmate against me the whole time: "Then kiss her!". Surely a hetero-BN'er would never be asked to kiss a man? It went on and on, and eventually I got so angry that I spat in his face. On the internet I then got the lion's share, columns appeared in the newspaper. I saw myself again, my furious, sharp eyes; I came across as angry. Then I realised that while I may have been right, I would never win it that way. And that if I wasn't careful I would become a bitter old man.

Since then, I've been trying to curb my anger and swallow my godliness. Of course, you can still change in old age. You just have to try hard.'

Being gay always leaves you outlawed

'Of the 60 years I have been alive, I have been regularly scolded for my sexual orientation for 50 years. Somehow I trigger that with some men and boys. I think it's because I look people in the eye and seemingly have a homosexual motor. But I can't do anything about that - as a photographer, I am simply a viewer, and I have been moving the way I move all my life. It has nothing to do with horniness.

Some time ago, a taxi driver gestured for me to cross but suddenly pulled up when I was walking right in front of his car: "Gays don't have the right of way." And recently, a boy started swearing at me for minutes: dirty dirty gay, with your dirty dirty thin gay fingers, stick them in your dirty dirty gay ass... Passers-by pretended nothing was wrong. I suffered from that for months, including the hatred it evoked in me. I have to fight it every day not to become bitter.

The Netherlands may be a beautiful country, but even here we live on quicksand. "Homo" is the most used swear word, so do you find it strange that gay schoolchildren are five times more likely to attempt suicide than other schoolchildren? Getting married is allowed, but kissing in public is not. When two men were recently assaulted with concrete shears for walking hand-in-hand, the judge ruled that there was no gay-related violence. And Youp van 't Hek, in his NRC-column freely use the words "poot" and "pisnicht" because - haha - that would be Amsterdam humour. Such things make me sad and combative at the same time. Nobody gets me down, but I do feel more strongly than before that as a homosexual you always remain an outlaw. Nevertheless, I wouldn't want to swap. If I could reincarnate as a homosexual I would sign up for that immediately.'

Monogamy is overrated

'Two years ago I married Kevin. He is 38, and much more monogamous than me. At that point, we haven't reached a consensus. I don't want to hurt Kevin and recently considered maybe becoming completely monogamous after all. But to be honest, I don't know how long I can keep that up. Although I have to confess that the desire for that freedom is mainly a matter of principle at the moment; it's more in my head than in my trousers, so to speak. Because, due to the enormous workload and that damned emphysema, I am no longer sexually an alpha male, I feel more like a panting deer.

Monogamy is overrated, I think. It gives false security and is limiting. When you are still young, it is bound to happen that you will be attracted to another person again. Kevin is a handsome man, he is humorous - I would really wish him to fall in love again, because there is no finer feeling than that. Why should you rule that out for the rest of your life? Prohibition only increases the desire and áf it happens, the relationship breaks down immediately.

I firmly believe that a commitment lasts longer and is more intense if you give each other a certain amount of freedom. To flirt, nurture warm feelings, maybe even fall in love. At the same time, I married Kevin for a reason. With that, I say: whatever happens, I will stay with you, I will never leave you. And I hope he does too.'

Getting older makes more humble

'I used to be considered a scandal photographer, now I have arrived. I never thought I would be allowed to design the euro coin for King Willem-Alexander or take the state portraits. Because of course the royal couple and the RVD know what kind of work I used to do.

I look back on that older work with mildness; it sometimes brings a lump to my throat. What a struggling man I was then. My pictures could be overwhelming, there was a lot of aggression in them: this is me, listen to me, look at me! I felt I had to prove myself enormously. Because I had done the School of Journalism instead of the Rietveld Academy - only then are you really an artist -, I was very insecure at first. I still am, but now I am less insecure.

After I turned 40, that passion for proof slowly calmed down. Indeed, I began to realise that I too do not hold the truth. I learned to put things into perspective. Incidentally, this also brought about a big change in my work. I started to photograph more openly, leaving more room for the viewer's interpretation. Now that I am turning 60, I really feel like an older man, physically and mentally. And actually, that's nice. I like being in my own world, being less outgoing. I experience much more peace and depth.'

Read also:

'Fantasy is the cork on which I float in this life.' How 'scandal photographer' Erwin Olaf became a photographer of royalty

About Erwin Olaf

After studying at the School of Journalism, Erwin Olaf Springveld (2 July 1959) developed into an art photographer. He soon gained fame for his taboo-breaking photo series of constricted naked people, people with Down's syndrome and elderly pin-ups. In the new millennium, his work became more subdued, with series on sadness and loneliness. Olaf designed the euro coin with King Willem-Alexander on it and made the state portraits of the royal family. Erwin Olaf is married and lives in Amsterdam.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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