HANS VAN DER MEER TURNS FOOTBALL PHOTOGRAPHY INTO AN ART

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It’s not often you can say without fear of dispute that a person achieved legendary status in their lifetime.

But then it’s not often that the world sees people like Johan Cruyff, the radical playmaking iconoclast of Dutch football who died last month at the age of 68. Unlike most players, Cruyff’s talents weren’t just bound up in statistics that tell the vague story of what he was capable of on a football pitch. He was a player and a man of ideas, someone who made the off-field concept of totaalvoetbal (Total Football) a reality, in 48 caps for the Dutch national team and spells as a player and manager for Ajax and Barcelona. Cruyff’s death prompted an outpouring of grief in his home country. It hasn’t helped the national mood too much that Holland grossly underachieved in failing to qualify for this summer’s European Championships.

But the relationship between the Dutch and football will always endure. The 61-year-old photographer Hans van der Meer has been documenting that relationship since 1995, when a journalist from the newspaper de Volkskrant asked him to collaborate on a project about amateur football in his homeland. Further football-based projects followed but the shots gathered together in Dutch Fields are remarkable for the way they double as portraits of the Dutch landscape. The moments Van der Meer captures possess a candour that’s a million miles away from the dull close-up action shots of elite level football currently swamping the internet.


IMAGE FROM "DUTCH FIELDS" COURTESY OF HANS VAN DER MEER

In short, they tell stories about football, the human condition and a country that not many other people seem interested in telling. I spoke to Hans about Dutch Fields, Cruyff and converting aliens to the world’s favourite game.

IMAGE FROM "DUTCH FIELDS" COURTESY OF HANS VAN DER MEER

Were you a big fan of football before you began shooting the photos for Volkskrant? Did you play football yourself at any stage?
Hans van der Meer:
 I am not a fan as in the supporter of a specific club – I rarely go to stadiums. But I am a player and I still play at the age of 61!

That’s pretty impressive. How much of the Netherlands did you visit on your travels to gather all the photographs for the Dutch Fields project?
I went to every part of the country, looking mainly for the opportunity to photograph football against a descriptive backdrop. It allowed me to illustrate that football is an important part of the culture, by showing the landscape around it as well.

Talking of the landscape, Dutch Fields is – as the name suggests – largely shot in the countryside. Do you think some of the magic of the photographs comes from the contrast of the bucolic wilderness with football – a sport that is, like any other, an attempt by man to impose a sense of order on the world?
I would not call it “nature”, more culture and landscapes. But the magic for me of this project was that all of my ideas on photography came together; it was a very generous way to communicate these ideas. If you read the website text for my other project, European Fields, you’ll see that I’d already published a book about the Dutch national football team in 1988, with the old black and white photographs. They were an eye-opener, in the sense that space is so important for the game – how can you leave that out? Sports photographers do not communicate football situations, because they do not show recognisable situations on the pitch, they just zoom in on two players and a ball.

IMAGE FROM "DUTCH FIELDS" COURTESY OF HANS VAN DER MEER

In my opinion, that is why football and photography can be such a beautiful combination, when you start to imagine what could have happened before the moment caught on camera, or what might have happened after it. And the fantastic thing is that everybody in the world understands these football moments, so you can play with a huge collective memory from people internationally.

Did you learn anything about friendship and rivalry while shooting Dutch Fields?
I learnt that we are pathetic people and great actors, pretending often to be fatally hurt. If you feigned injury like that on the street, everybody would call the emergency services! But in another sense, that is essential: football is a play in the same way as one you’d watch in a theatre, but the players tend to forget that. They do not realise that to walk out on to the pitch is to enter a parallel universe. The “reality” there, as in any other play, is different from the reality outside the pitch.

IMAGE FROM "DUTCH FIELDS" COURTESY OF HANS VAN DER MEER

What about the human need for rules and rituals – did Dutch Fieldslead to you having any reflections on those needs?
Rituals are part of amateur football, but more in the way that we copy gestures from the professionals – waving to the imaginary crowd, etc.

Holland is the birthplace of totaalvoetbal, a philosophy that was famously passed down by Johan Cruyff from Ajax to the great Barcelona teams of the last two decades. What has the reaction been to Cruyff’s death in the Netherlands? And at this amateur level of Dutch football, is there – or was there, when you were shooting in 1995 – still the urge to play in an attractive, intelligent, attacking manner? Or is it more basic?
The country was in mourning for a week, as Johan represented the joy and pleasure of the game, but also the beauty. He was an iconic figure, a true legend who was always talking enigmatically. David Winner wrote this interesting book Brilliant Orange about how we approach football in terms of space. You can regard every single football moment as a design that arrives in a split second and disappears in another split second. The solutions are defined by the position of the players on the pitch. By moving and keeping the overview of the positions of everyone on the pitch in combination with the skill to have control over the ball, you can go very far with a group of teammates that think more or less the same. Even at an amateur level. And that can give people a lot of satisfaction – or frustration.


IMAGE FROM "DUTCH FIELDS" COURTESY OF HANS VAN DER MEER

Is there anything you saw while you were shooting the photos that stays with you? Any funny, heartwarming, strange or depressing stories?
The most fun was talking with the old men at the matches about legendary situations from their past, a very authentic way of piecing together an oral history. Football is very much present in people’s memories when they have been playing during their lives.

Did you have to wake up early to get to the matches on time? 
I would always be there in time, introduce myself and I would always try to make sure that nobody got distracted by me on my stepladder – not that the players needed any extra encouragement to lose themselves in the game.


IMAGE FROM "DUTCH FIELDS" COURTESY OF HANS VAN DER MEER

Football is so much a part of everyday life now. But your photographs make it seem surreal and otherworldly. If aliens visited earth, and one asked you to explain why football was so well loved, what would your answer be?
It is interesting that the size of the pitch and the design of it seems to fit in the rules of the golden ratio; there is a special beauty in it. You cannot improve that, it feels perfect. 

IMAGE FROM "DUTCH FIELDS" COURTESY OF HANS VAN DER MEER

What do you feel the way the Dutch play football tells us about the country as a whole?
That we are pragmatic people, but creative in design and creating space. And in thinking as a collective – collaboration has always been important for the Dutch.

Finally, what projects are you working on currently and in the future?
Ha, I am doing a project about cows!

Thanks, Hans.