Speech State Secretary Halbe Zijlstra

“I’ve got controversy hanging off my butt.” This quote by Erwin Olaf says a lot about him, his candid and direct way of speaking, for one thing. But content-wise it also hits the mark, because the work of Erwin Olaf has always been provocative and irreverent. Not from sensationalism, but from the courage to make a statement.

Photography is an art form that demands love, as well as courage. Love of the craft: both the analogue magic of the photographer’s darkroom in the past, and the techniques of modern digital photography in the present. But it also requires love for the people and the objects that are being photographed.

If you’ve got the nerve, you can give shape to the unknown with a photo that really provides food for thought. An image that takes the viewer out of their comfort zone, stays in their head and goes home with them because they need to think about it.

Erwin Olaf: you’ve got guts. Your photos are the opposite of commonplace. They always have a twist. There’s always something extra there. Sometimes very clearly, because you’ve photographed people that our society doesn’t’ always choose to see. This is what you said yourself. I quote, “People who don’t belong, but who would like to belong all the same, that’s what I like.” You don’t choose the standard models, but people who are different – and because of these exceptional choices, the resulting picture is exceptional too.

Because you’ve never concealed your own nature, it’s obvious that homosexuality is one of the recurring themes in your work. It began in 1982 when you set up shop as an independent photographer and did a portrait of Hans van Manen for the COC magazine. He helped you set up your own studio, and he brought you into contact with the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Paul Blanca.

But homosexuality was too limited a theme for you. You had the guts to go much further, and you shocked the world with bondage and bodybuilders, with dwarves and fat people and fashion victims and fetishes. You became known as the chronicler of decadent fantasy. You created an unreal world that you made look as real as possible.

For some, this was a little too confusing. When your Mature series was exhibited in New York in 1998, it seemed that America was not ready for elderly pin-ups. They were apparently too confrontational. A visitor told the gallery owner angrily: “I don’t want to look at old knees.” The exhibition became a monumental fiasco.

But you took it on the chin. You just got on with the work you wanted to make. Series such as Squares and Chessman got a lot of tongues wagging. And your boundary breaking reportage, SM in Holland for the magazine Vrij Nederland was such a scandal that the entire print run of the edition sold out within a single day.

You’ve never made a secret of the fact that you want to earn a good living as a photographer. Commercial commissions for big companies allow you the freedom to pursue your artistic imagination in your personal work. And besides that, you think it’s important to your development to do other work besides making art. You want things to happen to you, to keep moving, to constantly tackle new challenges.

Looking at the your work in sequence over the past 30 years, there’s a clear development. Your images are still idiosyncratic, but they have also become more subdued. From riotous intoxication you’ve turned to rest, from masquerading to unmasking. A cast of characters who seem to have come straight out of the 1950s has replaced leather panties, horned masks and fat, tightly bound women. Boxers, hairdressers, housewives and schoolgirls stand in faded Technicolor hues, looking slightly lost towards the camera. You see American accessories, but still the pictures seem to breathe a typically Dutch atmosphere.

You see a great void, you experience apathy, and at the same time you project a joyful sadness. You use humour to score points. In your own words: “I tickle my audience and if they start to laugh, they get a slap in the face.”

You make what you want to make, and you set this on various stages to reach a broad audience. New York fell for you at the second attempt; it has all worked out fine there. And this year your work can be seen in Berlin and Beijing, Melbourne and Madrid, Los Angeles and in the Lakenhal in Leiden, where your exhibition ‘Freedom! The Relief of Leiden 1574-2011’ has been admired by so many. These photos show immense perfectionism, and a literally picturesque beauty. You have created a new genre, historical photography.

It’s amazing how you turn the world upside down, or just give it a wink. With characters who alternate between being chilly and vulnerable. With a jacket with a zip and an iPod in your version of The Relief of Leiden. But you also understand the art of bringing out the most beautiful side of a person – as, for example, in your portrait of Princess Maxima, or that beautiful work on the invitation to this ceremony – ‘Irene’ from the Grief series. Different people, seen differently by the camera, but both recognisable as a real Olaf.

Erwin Olaf: You’re one of our greatest artists. I am delighted that the jury has chosen you for the Johannes Vermeer Prize, the State Prize for the arts. In a moment you will become the third winner of this prize. The first winner, Pierre Audi, is spending his prize money on two new music projects, with an important role for young Dutch talent. Alex van Warmerdam, our 2010 winner, will use his prize money for a new film in Spain. Naturally we can’t wait to hear what you will make – maybe you will give us a little hint?

But first and foremost, I want to congratulate you on this very well-deserved prize.May I therefore invite you to join me on the podium?

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