More Dutch Perspectives: Adding Authenticity

by Aaron Schwartz

In One Way to Live, photographer Arnold Karskins documents brief snippets of the lives of some of the women working the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Karskens offers the reader humanizing aspects of their lives, showing them to be more than the happy-go-lucky simplifications that too often are ignored. The format speaks volumes to the authenticity of the essay. Through small pieces of information, the reader puts a face to the story when one of the eight photographs appears on the page. The stories and especially the images are raw, seemingly uncut looks into these women’s lives. One drawback of this photojournalism standpoint is that unlike other forms of writing and storytelling, there is no place for opinion or solution. Karskens is not able to offer the women help or advice, keeping himself out of the story and letting the women continue on with their lives. Therefore, the reader gets an untarnished look into the lives of Dutch women, and what the reader sees is a shocking, gritty, and eye-opening. Karskens appears to have no connection to the story other than his writing. While this is true for much of journalism and photojournalism, it is especially ringing true in this instance as Arnold Karskens is a man taking pictures of semi-nude prostitutes and telling their stories.

Another, less integrated form of Dutch perspectives appears albeit briefly in the first-person essay Who Is Zarte Piet? by Emily Raboteau. In her essay, Emily discusses the controversial Dutch holiday and its arguably racist and historically-numbing traditions. Emily writes as an outsider; An American looking at the tradition horrified at what she is seeing. The piece is argumentative, taking a stance almost immediately against the holiday’s racism. Written in the first person, the essay struggles to put forward much perspectives of the Dutch, save for the arguments yelled at her which she immediately shuts down. However, Raboteau has moments where she relates the beauty of the holiday to that of Christmas, but quickly retracts to her thesis. While this may have been the best course for her in this form of writing, there is nonetheless a lack of writing into the Dutch people’s counter arguments.

In short, both pieces of storytelling offer snippets and glimpses into the lives of the Dutch. They do this through different forms and through different means. In the case of One Way To Live, there is little to no thesis, but rather an unopinionated look into the lives of Dutch prostitutes and drug addicts. Raboteau on the other hand, offers what she sees in the Dutch culture (through the form of the holiday) and leads the viewer to a specific point of view.

Image: Karskens, Arnold. “One Way to Live: Photographic Essay,” Critique of Anthropology 7.3 (1987): 69-79.


5 thoughts on “More Dutch Perspectives: Adding Authenticity

  1. I’m glad Buruma is shaking up your view of the Netherlands! Yes, it’s riven by many of the same conflicts as the rest of Europe and the US, and in some ways it is even more amplified because of the stridently secular form of the polder ideal today (vs. the older “pillar” model where religion was acknolwedged as an organizing principle of society–e.g., w/ Catholics having their own schools, their own politicians, etc., and likewise for Calvinists….). Does this new knowledge change or refine any of your ideas about the anthropologists’ frameworks for understanding clothing choices? Does it shape how you view those women of Marken or those Dutch Moroccan boys?


  2. Reading Murder in Amsterdam, I was struck by the strife in the politics in the Netherlands that I had not yet heard of. For whatever reason, I never really considered that the Netherlands had even a remotely hostile political environment. Perhaps the other readings about Amsterdam’s streamlined infrastructure and compromising abilities led me to believe Amsterdam and the Netherlands is a utopia and safe haven from the problems and controversies that plague all of the world. While this is clearly a misguided way of thinking, I never considered that Amsterdam faces similar partisanship and a complicated political climate like any other city. Whereas before I mentally grouped Dutch perspectives into one category of thought, the reading changes this in my mind. Even in the Zwarte Piet reading, it seemed that the country was undivided in their stance of the holiday’s controversial traditions.


  3. Nice analysis of the limitations (and hinting at some of the possible strengths or purposes) of these two pieces. Could those limitations be addressed through any of the methods you see Roodenburg or Dibbits using in their scholarly analysis? What might we learn by applying those frameworks to these subjects?


  4. I have to deeply disagree that Karskens removes himself from the portrayal of the women, and their stories. He mentions several times about scheduling with his subjects times to shoot. These are documentary photographs of the women working, they are portraits that are arranged and chosen by the artist to portray what he wants. The style of photography reflects his blunt, matter of fact writing. There is a common conception that journalism or documentary photography removes the artists ability to mediate a situation, but I do not think this is the case for Karskens or his subjects.

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  5. Hello. I agree that Karsken’s photographic essay was the most authentic. This is because there was no room for the women’s personal stories to changed or added to, it was all just content from the people Karsken was interviewing. I enjoyed how short the piece was, just giving the reader a look into the women’s lives and once the reader gets to understand their hardships, the woman’s interview is over and you are left wondering what happened to them. However, I believe Karsken’s introduction could have been longer. This would give the reader a history or context to the smaller interviews. Unless this was the point. Maybe Karsken wanted just to introduce and leave the reader wanting more.

    However, I disagree about Emily Raboteau’s article. I felt she did a good job trying to fully understand her Dutch surroundings and the lovable, but insanely racist, connotation that comes with Christmas. But I agree that because she’s American you do not get an authentically Dutch experience of Zwarte Peit. However, I am not sure if that is the point of her agrument. To me, I felt that her argument was set up so that other outsiders could understand and make their own assumptions about Zwarte Piet.

    Liked by 1 person

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