Amsterdam’s Red Light District is known locally as the “Walletjes”, or “Wallen” (little walls), or generically as “Rossebuurt”, a pink or red neighborhood).
If you’ve never seen anything like it, Amsterdam’s Red Light District can be an extreme shock. What kind of shock depends you and your upbringing. Seeing women behind glass, wearing less clothing than on most topless beaches, dancing to music you can’t hear, beckoning and inciting passersby, or just looking bored, under black light, red lights, night lights, or daylight, will send just about anyone for a loop. There’s lots of this: the Red Light District is not a small neighborhood.
Taking pictures in Amsterdam’s red light district is not an affair to be taken lightly. On just about every window front (raambordelen) is a sticker that says, “No Photos”. Legend has it that if you are discovered taking pictures there, your camera (they don’t bother with your memory card or film…) will be tossed in to the nearest canal. Upon learning about this, I took it as a challenge. In a few of these pictures, you can see women looking straight in to the lens, others don’t seem to notice anything unusual. With one picture, I heard, “I want no kamera”, as the shutter was going off.
A friend of mine says one of the traditional ways of getting these images is to take them from a boat on a canal. Picture taking is much less noticeable this way, and the “security” personnel can’t get at the equipment. On one of my subsequent visits to Amsterdam, I started showing these pictures to my friend while sitting at an outdoor café. He made some approving comments, and some people at surrounding tables glanced over and started doing the same… Until three or four pictures had gone by, and they realized what the photographs were about, they fell in to a stunned silence.
True enough, I’ve never seen photographs of the Red Light District that actually show what the neighborhood is truly famous for. The best I have seen are some images where the windowfront occupies about ten percent of the entire photograph, or pictures that show just buildings, façades and neon lights.
So as to preserve my chances for the next picture sessions, I won’t go in to details about the methods I use to take these pictures. And I don’t encourage anyone to try taking pictures in the Red Light District. Just wearing any camera better than the usual amateur equipment is immediately suspect. Touching the camera with any specific intent can quickly lead to a stressful situation. I will say that it is very difficult, requires a lot of patience, and there is a large proportion of pictures that can be discarded immediately.
All images are © 2023, David Henry, all rights reserved. Written permission is required for any use.