There is a border where “Playground” comes to an end and the reality with those dangers of death which can trap there begins

Jeroen Hofman

Fishermen in the Bering Sea. The last miners of Wales. Firemen in Siberia. The Marine Corps training in Norway in the depth of winter. Secret worlds with their own rules and customs have always fascinated me as a photographer. My camera has briefly opened the doors to these worlds to me.

The training grounds are also secret worlds. With one essential difference. These are safe enclosed playgrounds. Training here is a play. Theater in a hidden world. “For real”, but not really. Not yet, and hopefully never.

With “Playground” I’m showcasing a part of the Netherlands that nobody knows about. The Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Justice and the fire department prepare here for conflicts and disasters. This world is closed to the rest of the Netherlands. These are the types of places that made you wonder as a child what was on the other side of the fence.

It all started when I was in Maasvlakt looking for a location for a series of photographs. Completely random I found myself driving through a post-apocalyptic landscape: blackened industrial complexes, concrete apartment buildings, abandoned burned-out vehicles, surrounded by oil refineries and heavy petrochemical plants. Only when I got closer, I realised something wasn’t right. There was nobody living in that building. This ghost town turned out to be a training ground where Shell and BP’s offshore crews prepare for possible industrial fires.

There are dozens of this kind of facilities in the Netherlands. Here, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Justice and the fire department train every imaginable possible disaster scenario as realistically as possible. These areas are often huge in scale. The largest one in our country is Marnehuizen, a complete military training town: houses, a bank, a supermarket, town hall, railway station. It even has a sewer system. Everything there is completely functional.

At first I photographed the training itself at close range, isolating them from their surroundings. That resulted in realistic images, but they were still too esthetic. They were lacking something: the terrain where this training was being done. And so I started to back away from the exercises. I eventually ended in a ‘cherry picker’.

By going up in the air the training ground became the protagonist, just like the landscape. You simply cannot tell the story of training grounds in the Netherlands without showing the surrounding landscape: a freeway in the background, the port of Rotterdam far off, a waste incineration installation next to the training facility. You recognize instantly; this is flat Holland. That clean-cut horizon line makes this landscape more typically Dutch.

In these facilities it’s all just play, stage-acting on a few enclosed square meters. If you make a mistake, you get to try again. Wrong decisions do not have fatal consequences. But what I call Playground may someday become reality for the people in these photographs. For some this will happen sooner than they think.

The Marine Corps trained at Marnehuizen for their mission in Uruzgan. They were the last group that shipped out before the mission was terminated. At the edge of the town they’d built a small compound surrounded by a wall like the ones you find all over Afghanistan. It was the marines’ job to go looking for explosives and drugs. Two months after I made the photograph, they were sent to Uruzgan.

That’s the dividing line where Playground ends and reality begins. Deadly danger that follows the real world. I would not like to be standing over that in a ‘cherry picker’.


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© Bleek Magazine. Text and all the images: Jeroen Hofman.