The quarantine feeling through the lens of Erwin Olaf – Radar

March 12, 2020: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte asks people at a press conference to avoid social contact and work from home. Museums, theaters and sports clubs are recommended to close, meetings with more than a hundred visitors cancelled. Three days earlier, the Cabinet made an urgent appeal to all Dutch people not to greet each other with a handshake.

At home in Amsterdam, Erwin Olaf looks at it with a mixture of disbelief and defeat. “It was like thundering out of a cloud,” says the photographer. “I celebrated my 60th birthday in 2019 and held successful exhibitions in The Hague, Amsterdam, New York and Shanghai, a new monograph had been published – this was only my anniversary year. At the beginning of March I had just returned from holiday in Thailand with my boyfriend. Completely relaxed, and suddenly nothing is as it was and you see a huge restlessness everywhere.”


The extent of the Corona epidemic only dawned on his first visit to the supermarket, says olaf in his studio in the IJssel buurt. “When I traveled in Asia and through the news channels, I was concerned about the virus, but I didn’t know what impact it would have. Until you suddenly don’t find half of your shopping list, everyone is terribly nervous and they just don’t push aside. When I went to the studio the next morning, I was scared and paralyzed, as if you were facing an abyss and didn’t know where everything was going – an emotion I had never experienced before.”

Olaf himself has been living with emphysema for years, an inherited disease that severely restricts his freedom of movement. ‘That’s what’s going on: I’m pretty vulnerable and with lungs that aren’t great at all, the perfect target for such a virus. I’m already talking about my life expectancy, let alone that I survived it. At the same time, you realize: this is much bigger, we are all facing this abyss. Everyone is now afraid of the physical and the future. I belong to the generation of the 1970s, and like the whole Western world I have seen growth and progress, now we know how fragile the whole House of Cards is. Economic models, profit forecasts, and austerity plans have become useless, and while we spend billions on weapons, it is ultimately a small, invisible enemy that brings us all together.”


He looked astonished at the wave of support and solidarity initiatives that started almost immediately, the photographer admits. “My feeling of paralysis lasted a little longer. I can express my emotions with my work, but I can’t really help or answer the questions that everyone asks themselves. Which doesn’t mean that April Fool’s joke got very staccato form: I was in the supermarket on Tuesday night, on Thursday we arranged the place, and the next day I was on the shoot with my core team. Everyone with mouth caps, gloves and disinfectants, and away from each other. In slowly maturing ideas, I don’t think: creativity is like pooping, you just have to.”

The result kneads his emotions and thoughts into a nightmare in the early days of the Corona crisis, Olaf explains: from walking through an extinct parking lot and the desperation of an older man in an unrecognizable world to being a photographer who can work with his emotions. ‘I’m a reporter of my emotional state, not my time. I see the empty streets in Amsterdam and pictures of abandoned metropolises and I love it all, but I can’t do anything else with it. These deserted roads are also threatening, a bit like delicious silence on the plane, until you realize that the engines have failed.”

Chess pieces

He wants to tell a universal story, olaf emphasizes: “Working on such a series creates a certain peace in myself, but it is also about communicating with others. We are all in this nightmare. So the car park could also be Düsseldorf or Toronto, and the supermarket could just as well be a Carrefour or a Walmart. What matters is the feeling that the series expresses: how we are all just chess pieces in a runaway system, banter figures that are now like the tumbling male in the generic of Mad Men.’