Richard Koek / Photographer
"If you genuinely embrace the journey, then nothing’s ever a failure."
Steve Buscemi, Tom Hanks and Bill Clinton are just some familiar names that have sat for the Dutch photographer Richard Koek, who splits his time between Amsterdam and New York and recently published a book of his street photography. But all of this could easily not have happened, for Richard started out as a tax lawyer, and found himself drifting unfulfilled through his forties even after moving to New York to pursue his dreams. It would take a near life-ending experience to bring peace and a sense of direction. “You finally have the clarity to answer the questions that everyone asks themselves,” says Richard.
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography Jerome de Lint
Were you born a photographer? I’ve always been interested in making things. I used to draw, I tried painting, and I took pictures as a kid. We’d return home from holiday, and all my pictures would be of strangers. So my approach was already different.
On the other hand, I could just as easily have ended up a painter, but I didn’t have the patience for it. I remember making an oil painting and being so frustrated that it was still wet after a week. Photography is a better fit.
Where did you grow up, and what were you like as a child? I was born in Ilpendam, a small town near Amsterdam, but we moved shortly afterwards to Blokker, a village just above Amsterdam. I had bronchitis as a child, so I was home a lot, and grew comfortable in the world of my own imagination. I remember a teacher once saying that I’d made up too much on a history essay. But that was normal to me, as I grew up with a mum who filtered the world through a surreal lens. She’d recount a story that I had witnessed, and I’d be looking at my brother like, ‘That never happened.’
I was always the good kid: polite, worked hard at school, tried to make as much money as I could from my summer jobs. Other parents always asked their kids why they couldn’t be more like me.
Why so well behaved? My mum had to raise us by herself; my dad was in the merchant marines, and was often away for nine months at a time. My mum had been uprooted from Buenos Aires as a young Argentinean woman and brought to the Dutch farmlands, an area occupied by people who didn’t take well to foreigners. She’d attended college, but being an immigrant who spoke no Dutch, she had to do make a living from domestic work. It was traumatic for her, and she had no one for support but my brother and me. My biggest fear was to add to her burden or disappoint her, which is why I was always the good kid.
In what other ways did she influence you? She allowed us to be free — stay up late, eat whatever we liked — supported us in whatever we wanted to do, and gave us whatever we asked for. But living with the frustration of not finishing college meant it was important to her that we did. I often tell people that I went through college to pay off her “debt”. That’s really how it felt.
So you knew you were headed to college, but why not photography school? I had no idea it was possible to make a living from photography, so I was totally clueless about what to do. Even after I chose a career, which happened by accident. I had a summer job picking tulips, when I was about 13 or 14, and one of the other boys mentioned that he was going to study tax law, and I thought, okay, that sounds nice. So I studied tax law, in Amsterdam, and moved to Arnhem to work for one of the big consultancy firms.
And how did you find being a tax lawyer? I wasn’t good at it. I had no passion for the job, and could see that my colleagues did. They constantly found ways to be creative within the restrictions of the law. They’d spend their weekends reading up on the latest changes in jurisprudence, whereas I never had a thing to say on Monday mornings. I was laid off after three years. I had a disagreement with one of the partners, so they gave me a severance package and let me go.
What did you do then, given that you still had no idea what to do with you're your life? I left to do something completely different: I got a job as a tour guide in Spain, just for one season. And it was during this period that I realised that I needed to do something with my interest in visual art.
What made you realise this? My brother and I were clearing stuff out of a house in Amsterdam Oost for my mum to move in, and in the shed was all this stuff from the former tenant’s ex-husband. He’d been interned in a work camp (Arbeitseinsatz) in Germany, so there were food stamps, maps, documents, letters, and so on. It told the story of this man’s life. We thought we’d better hand everything over to his wife, who was now in a nursing home, but she wanted none of it. That arsehole, she said. And I thought: I don’t want to end up like that. My entire life forgotten in a shed, and then tossed away like rubbish. That’s when I realised how important it is to make something that lasts, and do something fulfilling with your life. This was in 1993.
Light bulb moment. Something like that. I also have the writer Clark Accord to thank for giving me the courage to pursue my passion. We lived together for two years, and he was the perfect model of what it means to be a creative person. He had the most fabulous ideas. He was a makeup artist who’d made the leap to writing by pitching one of his ideas. He showed me that no idea is too crazy to explore. His way of being was a revelation for me, because in the Netherlands, if you tell someone you’re a lawyer who finds himself drawn to photography, you’ll be met with scepticism. I’d show professional photographers my work, and they’d tell me to think twice about getting into photography.
Why do you think that is? Because there’s too much negativity here. People find it hard to see potential, and to offer encouragement to enable others to follow their dreams. But Clark taught me to just go for it, which gave me the courage to leave the country.
How did you make the transition from the corporate world to photography? I went back to school. I was in my mid-thirties and found myself among 21-year-olds, and I loved it. I’m often drawn to younger people, because their energy and perspective on life is energising. I’d ditched the office, career and suit to do something different and creative, so to them I was a non-conformist adult, which they liked. I was also trying to figure out if I was more attracted to girls or boys, which they found interesting, too — a free spirit.
How confident were you that you could make a living as a photographer? The feedback I got during the course was encouraging, and I even got a few things published, which gave me some confidence. Nevertheless, you’re not a photographer right away, and I knew I’d have to leave the Netherlands to become one.
Why was that? I worked here for a short while, but the creative world is small and rigid, or at least it was twenty years ago. You had a certain number of outlets as a photographer, and that was it. People stayed in their jobs forever, so if you wanted your work in a particular magazine and couldn’t get past the gatekeeper, it meant you’d never be in that magazine. Because the guy would always be there.
People here can also be quite uncharitable and self-seeking. You ask a fellow photographer how he does something only to be told, “Dat is het geheim van de smid”, which roughly translates as “That would be telling.” I’m not going to share this with you because you might go off and benefit from it. I hate that saying and attitude. Fuck you. Are you that insecure? It’s one of the main reasons I left for New York.
Why New York? I’d been there once on holiday and it made an impression on me. I liked its energy. Since I’d had a good job, I had a generous credit limit. And I had some savings. I didn’t know what to expect and knew no one in the city, but I had enough to spend a few months finding my way.
Still a brave decision, though. It can’t have been easy making a living in New York as an unknown freelance photographer. That’s the thing about New York. People arrive with determination, which I had. And I’m very stubborn; I hold on like a pit bull. So my attitude when I landed in New York was I’m here and I’m staying, by any means necessary. It’s how you think as an immigrant. Rules and laws are secondary to an immigrant. Your happy future depends on you staying, and if you have to rob, steal or work illegally to get a toehold, that’s what you do. It’s why I empathise with immigrants everywhere. Anyway, I did what I had to do to work, even if I wasn’t supposed to, and I did so for seven years, as an assistant photographer.
What did you learn during this period? That you can never have a set script. You need to be able to handle the unexpected with a sense of grace, instead of with frustration and resentment. And see the unexpected as an opportunity. You have to be like that to live in New York anyway; everything is a struggle, so sooner or later you learn to take things as they come and improvise. Stay loose. You arrive at a job hoping to have your lighting a particular way, but then you’re forced to find a different way to create something that’s still acceptable.
How did you know when it was time to transition from assisting to working as a photographer, and how did you do it? I’m was in my forties, assisting people half my age, people who were good at what they did, but whose work didn’t blow me away. And I realised I was getting too old to assist because I was finding it more and more difficult to do as I was told. You have lots of responsibilities as an assistant — you’re the photographer’s left hand – but you’re not really responsible for anything. That’s nice so long as you don’t entertain greater ambitions.
Any hiccups during the transition? Interview magazine asked me to do a seven-page spread, and because I’d already accepted an assisting job in Europe, I turned it down. I allowed an opportunity like that to slip through my fingers — to do more assisting work. I’d given my word, so I thought I had no choice. It didn’t occur to me until much later that all I had to do was talk to the photographer.
Nevertheless, your work eventually ended up Interview magazine. Yes. I crossed paths with the art director and we became friends. We hung out, and he probably saw that I wasn’t just looking for people to help me improve my lot. This is something I’ve learnt: never be too eager. Don’t think anyone owes you anything because you’ve given them your attention. But yes, he’d seen and liked my work, and eventually offered me a little gig, which I accepted with grace, and I slowly began to get a few portraits in Interview magazine. This was my first big break, because I was working with A-listers, and it was the first publication of name to use my work. It allowed me to show that I could work at that level.
Any other significant breaks? Filmmaker magazine gave me my first break with a big Hollywood star: a cover shoot with Steve Buscemi. That led to more celebrities. And that’s when things really started to happen. New York is packed with talent, so you’ve got to be good. But your relationships matter, too — nobody wants to work with an arsehole.
By your own admission, you overdid things once you’d settled in New York. New York is the city of extremes. You can scale the heights but you can also hit rock bottom. You walk into a nightclub and the wall behind the bar is an enormous aquarium, with girls in mermaid costumes. And I’m sitting there with my beer, thinking, What the hell? I’ve fucking arrived! The intensity of New York was like nothing I’d ever experienced, and I’m very susceptible to intensity because I’d never really learnt to observe boundaries.
I still managed to pay my rent and keep a roof over my head, though I did once end up on the streets, but it was a period of drug abuse and fucking around. I was single in New York, and I felt free. Finally. No need to take care of mum, no more suits and corporate respectability. I could do whatever I wanted, and I went off the rails. I wasted so many opportunities and so much energy on going out and partying. The only good thing to come from this period is that it brought me so low that I was forced to change.
Did it affect you professionally? Yes, it did. Most of the work in the new book was made after I quit drugs and booze, and the difference between these images and the earlier work is one of awareness. The moment I quit the substances, I found that a) I had lots of free time, b) I had money left, and c) I had clarity: what am I doing with my life, and how are I going to fill my time? What’s my purpose here? You finally have the clarity to answer the questions that everyone asks themselves.
What did sobering up change in practical terms? Absolutely everything. Because it was time to heal myself. The substance abuse was of course about something else. If you know anybody that drinks too much, takes copious amounts of drugs or is always in relationships that end badly, then he or she has something that needs to be healed. Excess is a symptom of something deeper. So when you stop, it’s time to examine the cause. And you need support; I found mine in a certain spiritual path that offered certain rules for improving your life. It allowed me to focus on everything but myself.
How did you keep your focus while this was going on? I just did what I thought I needed to do, without awareness. But I grew more and more frustrated with how my life was going. I was in my forties, and all my college friends had families and careers while I just drifted without fulfilment or purpose.
Pride and stubbornness played a role, too. I wasn’t about to return to the Netherlands in defeat. People would say, “You can always go back to being a lawyer.” Hell no. If you choose a creative route, you have to embrace it and give it everything you’ve got. You can’t hedge your bets. My passion never dimmed.
What snapped you out of the downward spiral? I snapped out of it when I found myself contemplating suicide. The pain caused by my disastrous relationship had become too much for me. I’d already stopped taking drugs before this, so I thought, ok, I’m healthy now; perfect partner material. But I knew nothing about healthy relationships. Setting boundaries is relevant in all kinds of relationships, including your professional ones.
How long did it take you regain clarity? It happened very quickly. This was all just four years ago, at the age of fifty. I quit booze and drugs, and started having healthy personal and professional relationships. And that was when a book like New York New York could come into being.
How did the book actually come about? It started with a magazine I published in 2012. I’d started doing street photography to regain the freedom I didn’t have with commissioned work. Then I bumped into a street artist and we decided to co-publish a magazine.
I crowdfunded it and learned a lot from this, because it was a disaster that became a success. I ran a Kickstarter campaign that I quickly realised wasn’t going to reach its target. So I cancelled the campaign and crowdfunded the mag via my own website: I added a project page with a pay button and reached out to my network. And it worked. I raised the $7,000 we needed. The experience showed me that it’s okay to ask for help when you have something that people will be happy to pay for.
We published the magazine and people started contacting me via Facebook to ask if they could buy prints. I’d sold prints before from earlier projects but had no idea that my street photography could be worth anything.
What does street photography give you besides freedom? It allows me to be more in touch with the source of creativity, whatever it is. I’m focused outwards, not inwards, so I don’t have to think — just do. Before my 180-degree switch, I thought I had to control everything. But life is way easier when you let go and accept that you are not in control, and that you don’t have to be responsible for everything in your life; the moment this happens is the moment that things will start to work. Because shit happens all the time — that’s life. So accept whatever you have to go through and trust that you will come out on the other side.
How did you get from the magazine to the book? Yvonne Twisk, the publisher at TerraLannoo, saw the catalogue for the show of the street photography magazine pictures — which I held in a tattoo parlour, and which I also crowdfunded — and said we ought to do a book. The sales department wanted a book about the architecture of New York, which doesn’t excite me; I’m interested in people. So we reached a compromise: my vision of New York, with familiar icons to make it more commercially viable.
What does publishing this book mean to you? Personally, it means I can return to my normal life. I spent the whole of 2017 working on the book – 70 per cent of the pictures were shot last year – and there’s so much bullshit and politics involved in publishing a book, only some of which I enjoy.
Professionally, it’s the best business card ever. It has already open doors and raised the value of my work. I now have a gallery representing me, which means I’m no longer allowed to give away or sell prints.
You said you’re in a zone when you take a picture. How does that feel? The zone is the reason I’m here: to create as many of those moments. It feels orgasmic. It’s not the little death; it’s the little life. It’s absolutely spiritual. It takes us so long to figure out what to do with our lives that it’s a blessing to actually know. And if you do, you are one of the few. So many spend their days doing stuff they don’t like. I see it all around me.
That’s why the journey has been more precious than the book itself. If you genuinely enjoy and embrace the journey and the process, then nothing’s ever a failure. I needed creative freedom, so I started doing street photography. Yvonne knew and liked my work. And so on. Sure, I worked my arse off for it, but it could easily not have happened.
You found your calling and grew with it. Photography was a lifeline for me when I wanted to be in control — it’s the perfect profession for control freaks. It taught me to hold on, and later to let go.
You have an interest in social groups. What does that say about you? That I love to see the beauty in the mundane. It’s why I don’t like much contemporary photojournalism. It’s all about misery: World Press Photo, Zilveren Camera. But kids in Syria are still having fun, they still laugh, they’re still going to school. Where are those images? Before visiting Suriname, the only pictures I’d seen of the country were of old ladies in front of decrepit sheds. Images like these formed Dutch people’s idea of Suriname and the Surinamese: they need our help. But what I saw blew my mind.
And what do you think makes you see what others might miss? The blurb for New York New York has a line about the city being a place that honours the successful but has no mercy for those that fall through the cracks, and people have asked why I didn’t shoot any of the latter group. There are lots of homeless people in New York, and it’s possible to depict a homeless person with dignity, but I chose not to shoot any out of respect. You don’t choose to be homeless, and I find it exploitative to shoot someone when they’re down.
Let’s end the interview with a hypothetical depiction challenge: how would you depict Donald Trump? With the grandeur that he loves. I would make him bigger than he already thinks he is. I wouldn’t pass judgement on him. We are all bigger than we know, even Donald Trump. We deserve the leaders we get, but whatever comes, despite the hardship, we’ll be okay in the end.