‘Winter’s Relief’, written by Prof. Bert van den Brink, Dean of UCR

February 8, 2021

I don’t know about you but like many others I was keenly anticipating the arrival of winter. The better part of Saturday night I spent studying radar images until I went to bed relatively assured that on Sunday, things would happen as predicted. And they did! So after breakfast I grabbed my camera and headed out to Vlissingen to work on my series on the deserted coastal landscapes of corona. This most urban and rowdy part of the coastline, I thought, will be included in winter dress.

I cannot recommend enough in these times of isolation that one arrange a serious non-academic project alongside the online meetings and study-in-isolation characteristics of our lockdown existence. Nothing lifts me up like reserving some time for my landscape project; it is my own private time.

Now, my project focuses on deserted landscapes but on this snowy Sunday, they were not that easy to find. A sense of excitement, relief, and of enjoyment of weather and the landscape drove the people out of their houses, into the cold.

snow-covered embankment

No greater fun on a wintery day than some good old sledging. We do live in what may well be the Netherlands’ flattest province, but in Vlissingen there is plenty of dyke space along the waterfront, so quick solutions are easily found. This was a popular pastime yesterday. Whether here along the Westerschelde, in the dunes, next to highway viaducts, or the Middelburg ‘bolwerken’: where there was a slope there was sledging.

One of the great visual attributes of snow is that it makes colors and structures in the landscape stand out in a unique way. Photography itself has that same power, by framing a view and saying: “here, look” and asking “what do you think, feel, sense…”? Photographing snowy landscapes in a way doubles that, it brings out a visual clarity and essence that is not easily reached in your everyday snapshot.

sea and snow

Many cultural critics have complained about the mind-numbing consumption of images that, as denizens of our digital age, we cannot avoid. It is most certainly true that a huge industry of image making — whether journalistic, artistic, or commercial in nature — will often give one the sense that the world would be better off without the often unreflected impulse to show rather than act; to illustrate rather than to reflect. We’re all consuming images, as the famous Stewart Ewen title states, but we’re hardly aware of the power they have over us.

But couldn’t grabbing my camera and going out on a walk be a way of getting away from the consumption of all the images that I cannot evade? There is a difference between having to watch the images that come one’s way and creating images oneself. Not in order to sell them, to admire them, or to share them with others (for likes!), but because in making them, we pay close attention to the world, and hence to the import that it has on us. I for one think that my private little obsession with photography is mostly about educating my own senses, keeping my eyes open, seeing things that I would not see if I’d simply keep reading and writing my academic and Deanish policy stuff and if I’d keep making ten hour Zoom and Teams meetings days. These images can be sentimental, as the two above most certainly are. But then the scenes triggered my sentiment, which puts me in touch with my memories and sensibilities. They make me reflect enjoy. They do not make me achieve a better world, true. But they do help me to relate to the world I live in.

I am sure that there are human beings who are able to open up to their sense by just going on a walk. For me, that is difficult. I find it difficult to let go of my everyday hopes and worries. The camera’s viewfinder for me is a wonderland rabbit hole: its framed realities open up the world outside me, it helps me see what I would not see otherwise. It helps me find a picture like the one below, an image of hope which, again may be sentimental. I was in a sentimental mood yesterday, let that be our conclusion. Oh, do read the writing behind the window.

“Avoid escaping in conspiracies; look after each other.”

snow-covered street