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Someone I met in September

This month, I met someone mad. I am allowed to say that, because when I met her she told me that I was just as mad as her. She roped me into a crazy and seemingly impossible project. One phone call led me to drop everything I was doing and fly over to the Netherlands to dive right in. I should have known better…

“I know that you can hear me but I don’t care.” My neighbour had a point. I could hear her, giving out about me on the phone, just as I was giving out about her in the jail cell next door. There was a concrete wall between us but a big air vent near the ceiling transmitted our mutual rants word for word. The glassless barred window openings in the front wall of our cells meant that everyone in the corridor could hear us too. We did not stay angry for long, because -unlike prisoners- we were not confined to our cells. We just lived there, while we embarked on a life-changing adventure in South Africa.

It was 2004 and my neighbour was Ilvy Njiokiktjien, a fellow student at the Dutch School of Journalism in Utrecht (SvJ – hence the t-shirt in the image above). We had separately applied for a semester abroad and somehow blagged our way into Rhodes University in Grahamstown. We didn’t know each other before we left, but that soon changed as we became neighbours, or ‘buurvrouwen’, as we called each other in Dutch. We also had a ‘buurman’ called Jorrit, who lived in a cell downstairs. Why on earth we had chosen a primitive former prison as our home for half a year is a whole other story, but it is where we ended up anyway.

We sometimes fought, often laughed, and grew up a fair bit in the process. We fell in love with the place right there and then and we knew we’d be back to work in Africa one day to tell its many, many stories. I was ever jealous of the fact that she –as a photographer- could just work abroad, whereas I –a journalist- had to start from scratch in terms of writing in a new language. “Your camera doesn’t start working differently just because you crossed a border”, I told her, at a time where my English was only starting to shape up beyond high school level. The brilliant thing about Ilvy is that she doesn’t have time for self-pity. She simply looks at you with eyes that say: ‘just work harder’. And boy does she practice what she preaches.

She won the National Geographic photo prize in the only category that would do her best work justice: people. Out of some 220,000 entries (yes, two-hundred-and-twenty-thousand) her image of two women in Mozambique was picked. Then her dream came through: her shocking reportage about a racist boot camp for South African children led her to win two World Press Photo prizes in one year. She was named the first ‘Photographer of the Fatherland’ (it doesn’t translate well, but it is an honorary title in the Netherlands). And this year, she was the first-ever woman to win the Silver Camera: the most prestigious prize for Dutch photojournalism. And she’s not even 30 yet (she will be by the time you read this, but only just about).

When I saw her message appearing on my phone screen, I was prepared for anything.

A decade on from those early days in the old gaol we still call each other ‘buurvrouw’, although all that is neighbouring these days is the North Sea between her country of residence (the Netherlands) and mine (the UK). When I saw her message appearing on my phone screen, I was prepared for anything. Just to give you an idea why: She rang me one night from Johannesburg, where she was wrapping up her job as a photographer for a daily newspaper. “Do you think I can throw away my return ticket?” she asked me, before calmly adding: “I want to drive back instead.” Needless to say that she did, all the way to Utrecht.

Her question this time around was equally unpredictable. “Are you busy this month, buurvrouw?” Knowing that she was well aware of my ever-packed travel schedule, I ignored her question and asked her why. “I really need to save my project and you’re the only one I know who would be mad enough to do it.” If you did not know what the project was, you might have thought that I was indeed mad to reschedule flights, work and personal diaries and go. But the project was too amazing not to save.

When Ilvy became Photographer of the Fatherland, she embarked on a one-year mission to capture the essence of Dutch life. She decided to find and photograph one hundred Dutch people aged 1 to 100 on their birthday. One hundred birthday parties in a year means at least one party every three days. But most people celebrate at the weekend. She ended up picturing 128 people to ensure there were roughly as many men as women, as well as a diverse cultural representation and a geographical spread. A logistical nightmare to say the least. Particularly since she kept her day-to-day freelance business going too.

She decided to find and photograph one hundred Dutch people aged 1 to 100 on their birthday.

By the time I arrived, she had driven nearly 50,000 kilometers up and down the country. Her office was full of post-it notes, with huge diaries on the wall, written on the back of sheets of wrapping paper. Her phone rang non-stop, a couple of birthday years were still missing and the Dutch Photography Museum needed images to start preparing the exhibition. The publisher who wanted to turn the project into a book was pressing for a completion date before the present-buying holiday season kicked in. He also urged her to rapidly launch her crowdfunding campaign, which she had not even had time to think about yet. There were hundreds of hours of photo selection and editing ahead.

“Buurvrouw, I really don’t see how on earth we are going to do it and I don’t even think any of it is any good. I need to retake all these images or else we really cannot go to print.” I looked at her with the look she had first given me, back in Grahamstown all those years ago. She looked back and was silent for a second. Then she opened her laptop and started showing me pictures. From a prison to a monastery and from a house boat to a windmill. Thousands of stunning shots. It was all there. The people’s stories only added to the power of the images. A young guy drinking with friends turned out to be a transgender celebrating his first birthday as a man. A man lying in bed was in fact terminally ill and knew that his 43rd birthday would be his last.

As the buurvrouw overloaded me with a year’s worth of pictures and stories, I poured myself a strong coffee and smiled. It was like ten years never happened.

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