July 12, 2018

How DJ Joost van Bellen Captured ‘90s Underground Club Culture on Polaroids

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn.

When the second Summer of Love hit the Netherlands in 1988, one Amsterdam house DJ stood front and center. Joost van Bellen, one of Europe’s first house DJs, and still a fixture in Amsterdam clubs, recalls this late ‘80s and early ‘90s period—much of it spent at the iconic club RoXY—as a hotbed for experimental culture and personal expression. Polaroid pictures, too.

As it turns out, van Bellen documented a number of the club nights at RoXY with photographs. An amateur photographer, he never had a Polaroid camera far from reach. For van Bellen and his friends, the cameras were a way of documenting the cultural ferment bubbling up within and beyond the club’s walls. It was a time not just of house music and raves, but a period when other artforms were being celebrated at RoXY, and throughout Amsterdam’s wider underground scene.

Van Bellen recently spoke to Polaroid Originals over the phone about his collection of Polaroids. These instant analogue images showcase van Bellen along with many of his friends, acquaintances, and other fellow clubgoers.

What was going on in Amsterdam’s club culture that made you want to document it photographically, and with a Polaroid camera, in particular?

Polaroid was incredibly popular in the ‘80s and early 90s, and it was pretty hip to have a Polaroid camera. So it was one of the accessories, and it was way cheaper than current cameras. I shot maybe one thousand Polaroids or more, and after all of these years they still look pretty good. It was just this crazy era of early ‘90s Amsterdam club culture.

Which Polaroid camera did you use?

It was this gray camera—the Polaroid Image System E.

So you’re using this Image System E in Amsterdam clubs. Did you have a strategy of what you wanted to shoot?

No, I just wanted to take photos of my friends and the craziness that was all around. I’m not a professional photographer, so it was just documenting the nights and having fun with Polaroids.

What did you do with these Polaroids once you’d taken them? Did you pass them around amongst your friends, or just throw them in a box with the mind of looking at them years later?

Well, one night we put them around our necks with little chains. And people in the crowd would ask why we had Polaroids around our necks, and we’d say, “So people can see what you look like.” It was a complete mindfuck. There were about 500 people walking around the club with Polaroids of themselves around their necks that night, and then of course people began exchanging them. I think I only have one of them left. It would have been better to have just kept them as a great document of 500 clubbers from that one night, but we didn’t.

What was RoXY like at the time?

Three people from the arts, media and music worlds opened the club in 1987. It was the first place on the European continent where house music played. In the summer of ‘88, which was the second Summer of Love, the club went big and it became incredibly popular. It was a legendary club where art, music, theatre, literature, cinema, video art, photography and everything came together. It was like a multicultural thing inside a club.

It was also a safe haven for people who felt different, like drag queens, transexuals, nudists, birds of paradise, freaks—they could all get in. But if you looked really normal, or if you had an attitude, you wouldn’t get in; even big pop and movie stars weren’t let in because they wanted a VIP area or be treated in a special way, and the Roxy didn’t do that.

They’d say, “But don’t you know who I am?” And we’d say, “Yes, somebody who isn’t allowed into the club.” It didn’t really matter how famous you were; if you didn’t adjust to the rules of the club, you wouldn’t be allowed in. It was a very special and crazy place. It was something very different from normal life.

It seems that there is perhaps something special in the fact that the 500 Polaroids from that specific night are sort of lost to time. You won’t ever see them again. Whereas with something like Instagram, or any sort of social media where people can share their photos, the images are constantly being added and by default they never disappear, unless people do so.

Definitely. The Polaroids are like gems, like diamonds from the past. People take so many photos nowadays that you can’t really get a grip on it anymore. I’ve taken maybe 200,000 photos since the smartphone came out, so the Polaroid camera made the photos from that time very special.

When did you stop using the Polaroid camera at the clubs where you were DJing?

I think it was around 1996, and I have no idea why. Maybe it was because it was something from the era before and things had changed.

Now, 22 years later, are you taking Polaroids again?

Yes, we have one over here. A friend of mine who is a photographer, he has a Polaroid camera from the ‘70s, the Land Camera, and he takes a lot of Polaroids. He takes one every month of me for my new club night where I play alone for six hours. So every month there is a new Polaroid that is used for publicity.

Looking back at the images you took in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, what do they make you think about?

It’s a mixture of good memories of the fun and craziness, and a bit of sadness because there are friends in those images who are lost, who died of cancer, AIDS, or suicide. In those days, a lot of people were very wild, and a lot of drugs were taken. When people go out every night to a club that was a safe haven, that means they’re also very vulnerable. Vulnerable in a physical way because the sex life they had was wild and unprotected, but also vulnerable in a psychological way because all of those drugs—in the end, you have to pay the price for them.

Some people got sick through AIDS, and others committed suicide, mainly because of depression. We took so much Ecstasy in those days, and the drug sends out serotonin and dopamine, so when you get older your brain starts to malfunction. Some people took those drugs to the end, got depressed, and then had to end their lives. Now that I’m 56 it’s shocking to see all of the friends I’ve lost. I’m glad I’m not taking drugs anymore.

In general, the club and rave cultures of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s aren’t heavily documented with photographs. In that sense, your Polaroids are unique documents of the time and place.

There was way too much smoke because the smoke machines were going crazy, along with the strobes, so all of the photos look like a blur. People just didn’t have cameras, and people just didn’t think about taking photos because there was this beat and there was Ecstasy, and you had to just dance and fuck all the rest. Your ego or vanity wasn’t the point at all.

Now I see festivals where people are dressed like they have to be in a fashion magazine. Everything is picture perfect—their makeup, their hair, their clothes. They don’t dare to express themselves or go crazy or go wild because somebody might take a photo or a short movie and put it online. So social media, photography, and film have sort of become Big Brother. It’s not something high up in the sky that you can’t reach—it’s us documenting each other and limiting our self-expression.

Follow van Bellen’s current adventures on IG: @joostvanbellen.