Project

Light on the Water: Amsterdam Channels in Cris Olivares’ Series

Netherlands-based photographer from Ecuador studied the channels of Amsterdam and tried to catch the play of light that occurs only several times a day.

Cris Toala OlivaresAge 33

Born in Ecuador and moved to the Netherlands at 18 to study medicine. Started his career covering conflicts in Gaza and the civil war in Bangkok. Works as an independent photographer for Reuters, National Geographic, Geo and many others. The winner of the Dutch contest Zilveren Camera in 2009 in the category of Foreign News and a prize winner in 2014 in the category Environment. In 2015, he issued his first book The Amsterdam Canals.

I first shoot the project about the Amsterdam canals for Geo and National Geographic. I was assigned this project because I was both an outsider (coming from Ecuador) and an insider after living many years in the Netherlands. In four years my project came out as a book.

A great part of my projects consists of the research I’m doing. I was walking on the street talking with tourists and asking what they see on the canals and what remains hidden from them. My second research focus was on what kind of pictures of the Amsterdam canals people have never made. I also went to the Rijskmuseum (a Netherlands national museum) and studied the paintings of old Dutch masters.


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Then I understood that because the Netherlands is a Northern country, it happens to have a very special light – you could find the same light only in Ireland and Scotland. So, in Amsterdam, something interesting happens. The light reflects off the water, then it bounces off the canal houses windows and in this way the streets get illuminated. It’s a geometry of light that happens only a couple of times a day. You have to follow this golden light and understand when exactly it appears on a particular canal.

Amsterdammers were often calling me so I could come and shoot something interesting happening in their neighborhood.

I photographed Amsterdam from a helicopter, I dived in the canal at 5AM. Amsterdammers who knew I was doing this project were often calling me so I could come and shoot something interesting happening in their neighborhood. I’m never sending an assistant to make arrangements for me. I want people to know who’s knocking on their door, be humble and get a personal connection with them. When people see your curiosity they open their houses to you.


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I’ve seen many pictures of the Netherlands taken from above, but those were just beautiful pictures, they didn’t tell a story. There was a whole week when I studied the light that can separate the two parts of Amsterdam – the older 15th century part and the newer one that was built in the 18th century. And to tell this story I took a photo where you can see a line of light that goes through the canal Leidsegracht and separates the two parts, coloring the old part of the city in blue and the new one – in red. The light tells the story. People in Amsterdam live in an open museum – such combination of old and new is very rare.


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As a photographer you have to be a label and focus on one thing. It’s especially important for social media. I was a canal boy and a volcano man. Maybe next I’ll be a food man or someone else.

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