In an exclusive chat with the photographer, Sem reveals the details behind his new book documenting the effects of gentrification across post-industrial cities of the Western world
Look around at your local dwelling and you’ll likely notice change of some sorts. And not just the seasonal kind – the blossoming trees or sprouting bulbs, for example – but more in the way of concrete; the gentrification of our cities. Whether it’s the increasing density of luxury flats, the growing peaks of the buildings or the demolition of community-led spaces, our environments are becoming dispersed, pushing those unable to afford its increasing prices out onto the edges. We’re in the height of long-term displacement and our cities are becoming sterile.
This is the crux of Sem Langendijk’s new book Haven. An in-depth study into the displacement of urban citizens, the project is shot in an atypical documentary style and told through the distinctive lens of the photographer. Having grown up in the “hinterland” of Amsterdam, he witnessed first-hand the effects of gentrification over the years, inspiring him to start researching the disused docklands in his home country, as well as the harbours of New York and London. This was between 2015 and 2020, during which he published a three-part, site-specific series named The Docklands Project, telling “stories about those specific communities and district” – the backbone to this latest accomplishment, Haven.
An unavoidably autobiographical book, Haven is a coming-of-age tale that sees the narrator, Sem, navigate adulthood amongst the growth of the world around him. It feels personal just as much as it does activist, achieved through a mix of intimate portraits and stark (although oddly warming) imagery of the urban landscape. Yet surprisingly, less so is it about the places specifically, and more is it an open-ended project structured around the lives of the people, published for infinite interpretations. We see subjects building their own structures on the waters edge, posing in front of the lens with might and force; empty buildings and forgotten facades left to decay; the children growing up here. Each element throughout Haven has its own chronicle, its own history.
What we do know, though, is that what Sem has experienced is something of a universal one. We’ve all witnessed the mass evolution of the modern world and the effects it’s had on the civilians. But some might just not be aware of it yet. And through Haven, these matters are revealed and confronted head on. Below, in an exclusive chat with Sem, he shares the details about the project, what displacement means to him and what he hopes to achieve from the work.
What does displacement mean to you and how have you addressed this within Haven?
As fringes of the city are redeveloped into waterfront districts, which are to attract high incomes and offer luxurious housing, the displacement that occurs here is that of the communities that had previously been cast to these abandoned areas, where no one else wanted to live. Often these communities are referred to as city nomads, people who only temporarily live somewhere. But the fact was, these people ended up staying in these fringes for decades due to the postponement of redevelopment. It’s enough time to build a home, have a family and get grounded there. One of the environments I photographed for the project is very similar to where I lived as a child. In the book, this is where portraits are dominant. In the later stages of the book, the portraits are less frequent and become more anonymous. The people are replaced by the urban fabric of a modern city; glass, concrete, hard shadows. I wanted to gradually change the atmosphere of the book, and through doing so, address the issue of communities being forced out of the city.
You’ve also described the book as being autobiographical, how so? In what way have you tied this in with your own personal experiences?
In the edit for Haven, I decided to build a narrative around a boy who grows up simultaneously with the city’s transformation. Gentrification is a general phenomenon occurring in a lot of Western, former industrial cities. My motivation to make this work was very personal, and the voice I wanted to use was my own, the subjective one. Who am I to make this project and what is my relation to it?
As someone who has lived through 30 years of city renewal, it is an autobiographical story. The opening image of the book is a portrait of Tommy; when I made this photo it felt as if I was looking at myself, 25 years back in time. The edit jumps to different environments, from an industrial ship wharf turned into an experimental living site, to the areas where we encounter metal and wood workers, garage shops and other businesses that relate to the harbour. It comes to an end in a financial district, which is a completely different world from where it started. These all share the history that they were once the docklands where ships were built, and relate to the different stages of gentrification.
Can you give some more detail about the places you visited?
I picked the places I photographed and researched specifically. I wanted to trace back the timeline of the change I witnessed, and compare how former ship wharf areas were used.
The Docklands Project is divided into three different series. The first is dedicated to a community that had lived on an abandoned ship wharf for over twenty years; I lived in an abandoned rail station next to the Central Station in Amsterdam, which was a similar place. I had stayed with this community over winter in a caravan, two years prior to starting this project (2013). From 2017 to 2019 I visited the community frequently, up to the point when they had to vacate the land, after legal procedures were lost.
For the second chapter, I looked for a ship wharf in Red Hook, a former Dutch settlement, and found a lot of resemblance with the area I lived in during my teenage years. The second series deals with its contrasts in architecture and the increase of wealth to the area. The public space is changing, I encountered a more privatised use of the space around houses. In some cases, the architecture almost seems to turn its back on the street, with blind walls which make it less inviting for visitors to enter the area. The urban landscape is becoming more structured and planned, with less options for the citizens to shape and alter their environment. The final chapter looks at the Docklands of London, a city which early on invested into these areas and saw a potential. Now a new financial district, these docklands are private lands, managed by corporate companies from overseas. Instead of police, private security patrols the streets. In some areas you’re asked for ID and proof of address. It is almost dystopian to me, but it is the direction that regeneration has resulted to that’s steered by capitalistic ideals. In Haven, the work is brought together and mixed, to create the idea of one city that transforms over time.
Who did you meet while photographing? Tell me more about your subjects.
I’ve photographed a number of people who I thought were inspiring, often young adults who were still discovering their place in the city, attracted to the buzz, whether it were artists, musicians or high school kids that were having a lunch break. I’m photographing strangers, people whom I’ve never met before, but I am intrigued by people who, sometimes distinctively, express they’re out of the norm. Whether it’s as small as an earring or tattoos, or more expressive hairstyles, I tend to turn my camera to people who show some type of resistance. At least, that’s my interpretation of it, what I project on them.
The work deals with freedom and the freedom to be different – to be present in the city’s demography. One effect of gentrification in an increasingly more homogeneous demography of the citizens, and more segregation. The people I photographed for Haven are part of marginalised communities. By making a book about place, but including the portraits as a significant element of the work, I mean to amplify their existence and presence, and importance within the city. I believe diversity and inclusivity are essential for the city’s dynamic. If we lose these elements, we might create cities that lose their importance in our society. It is here that innovative (new) ideas are born, often by looking at something from a different perspective, fuelled by the input of the unexpected.
What are the main causes of displacement and what can be done to preserve our environments?
I think that is difficult to answer. The systems that are resulting into displacement are not so easy to separate into main causes, besides maybe rising rent. Something I’ve experienced is the dispersing of communities and the vast demolition of old parts of the city. When a large part of a community is replaced by different people, the social infrastructure is disrupted. Your neighbour moves, but if all your neighbours move, why would you stay?
Next to the people, the urban fabric is something we relate to, as anchors and reference points. In many cases, large parts of the industrial buildings were demolished, to make way for apartment blocks, with different materials. I feel like the aim should be for a more diverse type of urban fabric in regenerated areas. Leave some of the old, both physical as socially – not everyone needs the same luxury. Keep these affordable, so people can stay. Integrate the new into the old. In a way, would it not be beautiful if everything that is present in Haven, can co-exist in the same time, the same area? Cross-pollination is key for the city’s progressive nature. I think this can be increased, or at least preserved within cities, by being more aware of the potential of some old areas.
What are they key takeaways from Haven, what can the audience learn?
The intention of the book is to leave things open for the viewer to interpret. The second chapter is more informative: a short history of harbour areas after the 1980’s, with additional perspectives from sociologists who studied our cities in length. But there is a focus in the book on people that shape their own environment, that re-invent space for new, needed purposes. In today’s cities we face scarcity of affordable housing, while office buildings sit empty. There is a need for experimental solutions. Certain communities and their way of life can be valuable to how we think about city renewal.