Sem Langendijk


Exhibition review by Jilke Golbach

Jilke Golbach visits Haven, Sem Langendijk’s current exhibition at Foam Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and leaves wishing for more fruitful avenues of critique via a deeper dive into what sustains squatter communities, in the process asking: what can photography uncover when we look closely, and listen carefully alongside?

‘City air will set one free,’ goes an old German saying, carved into the gates of medieval Europe’s main trading cities. It referred to a law that freed city residents from feudal conditions, fostering a new sense of autonomy, spurring migration from country to city, and turning towns into vibrant centres of trade and commerce. Long since, urban life has been associated with liberty. Great cities thrive on the unrestricted coming together of people and ideas, of different ways of thinking and modes of being. And it is in cities that collective struggles for rights and freedoms have been most fiercely fought.

By the middle of this century, cities are projected to house three quarters of the planet’s population. But what’s left of our urban freedoms? This question lies at the heart of Sem Langendijk’s documentary project Haven, which is on show at Foam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, until 18 June, and was published as a book by The Eriskay Connection in 2022. Through stark urban landscape photographs and sympathetic portraits, Langendijk explores the transformation of post-industrial areas in London, Amsterdam and New York. Crossing borders between these urban centres, he examines the processes of regeneration, gentrification and privatisation in an effort to chart the double meaning of the word ‘haven’ as both a harbour and place of refuge.

Langendijk’s own childhood forms the point of departure for Haven. The photographer was raised in a community of squatters, creatives and workers in the western docklands of Amsterdam, where his parents set up home in an abandoned railway station. At the age of ten, this transient community was demolished to make way for new residential development. Langendijk only came to appreciate his extraordinary youth much later. He now fondly remembers growing up with a sense of unbounded freedom and adventure. “For me this project was about homecoming,” says Langendijk. “The goal was to create a narrative about my childhood, about what I experienced growing up in Amsterdam, and to pay tribute to that.”

His pictures of current squatter communities holding onto the industrial fringes of Amsterdam against an encroaching skyline of new-built apartment blocks reflect this search of a home that no longer exists. In the defiant gaze of a boy, photographed in mismatching socks whilst stood on a weathered table, we might see a translation of Langendijk’s own experiences but also a provocation to consider who or what is lost when alternative ways of urban living are erased.

Langendijk is preoccupied with the urban processes that make cities increasingly unlivable for everyone but monied metropolitan elites, where historical ties and neighbourhoods are replaced with new, often dystopian realities of anonymity, surveillance and governance. With Haven, he seeks to place the transformation of the Amsterdam docks in dialogue with the Docklands of London and the Red Hook neighbourhood of New York – all formerly industrial waterfront areas where local or creative communities once thrived but which are now dominated by private, often global interests.

The subject of urban change has long captivated photographers, be it post-war reconstruction, industrial ruination, sites of memory, suburbia, council estates, or community life. Today, a critique of the processes and flows of capital that are causing widespread urban displacement, social exclusion and socio-economic inequality is much needed. The photographs on display here show stark contrasts: on the one hand, we are confronted with alienating architectures of glass and steel; on the other hand, we come face-to-face with people living on the margins.

Haven offers few contextual anchors, with the photographs remaining untitled, undated and unlocated. This disorientation serves to emphasise the increasing homogeneity of these cityscapes but also allows subtle resonances to emerge between the works. Only in a few places does text support interpretation, sometimes in the form of quotes from well-known urbanists such as Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett, which feature in the book as well as the exhibition.

The result is visually striking, yet one wonders whether a critique of these issues might not benefit from a greater inclusion of voices and research-based documentation. If what is at stake with gentrification is the disappearance of locality, the loss of place specificity, and the social exclusion of entire groups or classes of people, doesn’t abstraction further add to the erasure of a human scale? Even if strong similarities exist between the development of London, Amsterdam and New York (certainly in terms of their architectural aesthetics and capital flows), shouldn’t they also be understood within their own historical, political and social contexts? Are the creatives, ravers and festival-goers of the docklands of Amsterdam really the same as the residents displaced from Brooklyn, New York?

Without attention to specificity, there is a chance of reproducing a simplifying narrative that pits “true creatives” against “elite ghettos”, poor residents against trendy coffee bars, and corporate bodies against the man on the street. Whilst this goes some way to answering one of the project’s central questions – “Who owns the city?” – the mechanisms of gentrification are typically far more complex than simple dichotomies would allow. Gentrification is a symptom, not just a cause of accelerating cycles of change, a spiralling housing problem, and a growing cost of living crisis. The true problems of cities are problems of capitalism – an illusion of unlimited growth that endlessly reproduces the same inequalities in space. We are all caught up and complicit in the forces that drive it. But whilst the processes are global, the effects are hyper local.

How do we engage with such enormous complexity through photography? What questions can we ask? And what pitfalls should we aim to avoid?

Langendijk takes the decades after 1960 as a counterpoint to today’s urban transformations, drawing inspiration from urban scholars and grassroots movements active in the second half of the 20th century. In those years, deindustrialisation and suburbanisation in Western cities left large parts of cities empty, with one result being that space was, for a time anyway, easier to come by. Seen through Langendijk’s lens, post-industrial areas became “fertile playgrounds” for outsiders and creatives, and abandoned docklands “a free haven for the adventurous”. But what if we approached these spaces through a more critical lens that included questions of race, gender and class? Were they really such safe havens, and for whom?

Nostalgia runs the risk of glossing over the rougher edges of complex circumstances. Concerns over the homogenisation of cities and the destruction of social and historical urban fabric had already taken root in the 1960s, leading to vigorous academic and mainstream debates about the “urban question”. Authors such as Jane Jacobs were influential in such debates but have also since been heavily critiqued for their own positionality and blind spots with regards to the intersectionalities of urban injustice.

A nostalgic view of squatters’ communities, authentic neighbourhoods or other ways of living, born from a longing for one’s childhood, a desire for homecoming or simply better days gone by, is a relatable impulse in a world that seems to slip ever more quickly through our fingers. But perhaps a deep dive into what sustains certain communities, sometimes against powerful odds, would be a more fruitful avenue of critique. What does urban resistance look like? What lessons can be drawn from such communities that might offer hope for different ways of city-making? What can photography uncover when we look closely, and listen carefully alongside?

Cities have always been sites of struggle. In the words of the highly influential urban theorist Henri Lefebvre, they are ‘conflictual and dialectical, open to becoming, to encounters (both fearful and pleasurable), and to the perpetual pursuit of unknowable novelty’. The struggle is about shaping our cities after ‘our heart’s desire’. But it is this freedom to struggle, to even be part of the city to begin with, that is increasingly under pressure today. In many ways, we already know the answer to the question: “Who owns the city?”. But how we exert our right to it, how we protect, assert and demand our urban freedoms, is a far bigger task. Any effort to grapple with such questions – through photography or otherwise – can only begin from a critical place of situated and intersectional understanding, and an open-ended engagement with both place and people. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Foam, Amsterdam © Sem Langendijk.

Installation views of Haven at Foam 3h, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, until 18 June.

Jilke Golbach is an independent curator specialising in photography. She was previously Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London. Alongside her curatorial practice, she is completing a PhD project at University College London on the subject of heritage, neoliberal urbanism and the right to the city.


1-“Summer” (2018) © Sem Langendijk.

2-“Tommy” (2018) © Sem Langendijk.

3-“Canary Wharf” (2019) © Sem Langendijk.

4-“Dog” (2018) © Sem Langendijk.

5-“New York Grain Terminal” (2016) © Sem Langendijk.

6>10-Installation views of Haven at Foam 3h, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, until 18 June.

Laia Abril

On Rape: And Institutional Failure

Book review by Jilke Golbach

On Rape: And Institutional Failure, Laia Abril’s latest instalment in her ongoing History of Misogyny, uses text and image to offer a carefully orchestrated, rigorously executed journey of photographic investigation into the omnipresent threat of rape, and violence against women in broader terms, writes Jilke Golbach. The Catalan artist currently presents her broad-ranging, research-based work at C/O Berlin until 21 May 2024.

Disbelief. It leaks from the pages of Laia Abril’s book On Rape: And Institutional Failure, published by Dewi Lewis, lingering in the air like a horrid smell. Disbelief, not because the countless stories of rape recorded here are unfamiliar (hardly so) or the facts fail to be loud enough, but because they lay bare, page after page, the nauseating extent to which practices, materialities and cultures of rape pervade societies whilst rape victims continue to be discredited and disputed.

An involuntary question, close to denial, keeps popping into my head as I process the most archaic, most barbaric forms of sexual abuse and silencing made visible here: surely, not still? To which the answer is: yes, still. And all the time, everywhere.

The day I write this, accounts of rape emerge from war-torn Ukraine, the London metropolitan police and Iran where, horrifyingly, virgins “must” be raped – in the name of religion – before being executed for protesting in the streets. If Abril’s project makes one thing clear, it is that rape, and violence against women in broader terms, is an omnipresent threat, not confined to borders or circumstances, and one which is to a great extent internalised by 51% of the global population. A frightening UN statistic asserts that as many as ‘one in three women will suffer domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime’.

Covered in bloodred cloth and printed on ink-black paper, this latest chapter of Abril’s ongoing History of Misogyny is a carefully orchestrated, rigorously executed journey of photographic investigation. It was sparked by the Manada, or Wolfpack, story in Spain, Abril’s country of birth: a widely publicised case of the gang rape of an 18-year-old woman in 2016 that mirrors many of the issues Abril uncovers: extreme brutality against women, video-recordings of rape, toxic masculinity, victim-blaming, questions of evidence and consent and a lack of justice for survivors – but also glimmers of hope in the form of feminist protests, the reform of sexual assault laws and ultimately increased sentencing for perpetrators.

‘Why do we still have a society that rapes?’ asks Abril in a conversation with Joanna Bourke, author of Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence (2022); a crucial, momentous question that drives the project. Through image and text, Abril seeks answers, all the while unravelling a web of myths and misconceptions, tracing the ancient and historic roots of present-day narratives about women, women’s bodies and what can be done to them. There is the persistent myth of the ‘broken hymen’, the ‘two-finger test’ to assert ‘vaginal tightness’, the fable that rape eroticises women and the excuse that ‘boys will be boys’.

Rape does not only happen to women and girls, but they do constitute the vast majority of victims. The crux of On Rape, following Abortion (2016) and preceding Mass Hysteria, resides in its powerful subtitle: institutional failure. Integrating materials ranging from biblical maps to WhatsApp groups, the work demonstrates that rape is systemic; symptomatic of patriarchal cultures in which male bodies can be weaponised and female bodies subordinated. Rape finds fertile ground in unequal societies and their long male-dominated institutions, where gender violence intersects with class, race and sexual orientation. ‘For centuries, men have made the rules’, notes Bourke, and our laws (as well as criminal and medical protocols) thus fail to protect women. Rape, domestic abuse, murder and forms of institutional misogyny are all leaves from the same book of gender violence.

Nowhere does this become more obvious than in Abril’s testimonies of survivors of rapes which took place in institutional settings (school, the army, a convent), presented alongside black-and-white photographs of the victims’ items of clothing. Modest on the page but displayed life-size in gallery contexts, as the recent Photoworks / V&A Parasol Foundation Women in Photography Project exhibition at London’s Copeland Gallery demonstrated, these forensic-feeling images leave the viewer in no doubt about the confrontation with a real human body.

Rape constitutes bodily harm, but its most grievous effects are the result of psychological trauma; trauma that might cause a lifetime of suffering or may be perpetuated over time, even becoming transgenerational by causing pregnancy or taking place within marriage. In the words of Lluïsa Garcia-Esteve, a doctor of psychiatry specialised in women’s mental health, the trauma of sexual violence constitutes ‘a crack, a rupture in the biography’.

This rupture, Abril shows, has long been pitted as a kind of robbery, as stolen virtue, lost purity; rooted in patriarchal conceptions of women as property. In many societies, rape victims are punished or even killed for bringing ‘disgrace’ to their communities. In certain places, marry-your-rapist laws continue to be legally practised. And yet, only a few years ago, two women in India had their hair shaved off for having the guts to resist a sexual assault by a group of men.

Guilt and shame are powerfully intertwined with sexual abuse and often coerce women into silence. Victim-blaming and victim-shaming are amongst the main reasons why most rapes do not get reported, let alone convicted. On Rape documents a dizzying array of excuses that seek to discredit or delegitimise those who speak out against rape, many of which are so ridiculously mad they’d be laughable if it was not for such a deadly serious subject: ‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down’… ‘If you wouldn’t have been there that night, none of this would have happened to you’. She had to be corrected for being a lesbian. She was wearing a lace thong. She had a few drinks. She had her eyes closed.

Silencing women is integral to rape culture. In The Mother of All Questions (2017), Rebecca Solnit writes how it maintains that ‘women’s testimony is worthless, untrustworthy… that the victim has no rights, no value, is not an equal’. And thus, ‘[h]aving a voice is crucial. It’s not all there is to human rights, but it’s central to them, and so you can consider the history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence.’

Abril follows in a lineage of women artists chipping away at the silence over sexual violence, alongside Zanele Muholi, Ana Mendieta, Tracey Emin, Kara Walker and Margaret Harrison. This work – to make public, to make visible, to make literal, to make undeniable – is an act of resistance, a refusal to cower in the face of oppression and control. On Rape’s remarkable power (and empowerment) resides in accumulation: by laying down the facts, counting the numbers, assembling the pieces, Abril has built a fortress of voices, and it leaves no space for disbelief. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis © Laia Abril

Laia Abril: On Rape – And Institutional Failure now runs at C/O Berlin until 21 May 2024.

Jilke Golbach is an independent curator specialising in photography. She was previously Curator of Photographs at the Museum of London. Alongside her curatorial practice, she is completing a PhD project at University College London on the subject of heritage, neoliberal urbanism and the right to the city.


1-‘Ala Kachuu’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

2-‘Military Rape’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

3-‘Mulier Taceat in Ecclesia’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

4-‘Merkin’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

5-‘Shrinky Recipe’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

6-‘School Rape’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

7-‘Penis Truth’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

8-‘Rapist Brain’ from Laia Abril, On Rape: And Institutional Failure (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.