(Original Photo By: Gerard Henninger)
Go to school, get good grades, get a degree, and establish yourself as part of society. For a lot of people, that’s the timeline. Too often, our successes are judged by the aforementioned standard and our dreams of a creative life are left at the door. For Rutger Geerling, photographer for over twenty years, it all came down to a choice- are you willing to make it work?
Growing up in Holland, Rutger had the dreams many youngsters do. He wanted to be a fireman, policeman, astronaut, etc. It wasn’t until he started skateboarding in his later teens that he discovered an interest in action photography. It wasn’t long until that translated to snowboarding as well, which put him on the map of the photography world.
“I started skateboarding when I was 17. A bit late to the party, but that ultimately got me into photography. I picked it up rather quickly and I started doing snowboard photography as well. Back then in Holland, the level of those disciplines weren’t that high. Skate/snow photographers weren’t really that great, and I was constantly looking at US photographers and what level they were at. I always tried to obtain that level. I got close. Never to the super high level, but I got pretty far. A lot of people in the Netherlands said I had raised the bar in this country for that kind of photography. That got me thinking, maybe this is something worth pursuing and maybe I can do more with it.”
As soon as Rutger finished university, he decided to give himself a year to get the wheels turning. He had already gained some experience as he shot for the university’s magazine, as well as sports, so he was up for the challenge. With a Master’s in public administration in his pocket and an entire future ahead of him, he decided to give it a shot.
“One of my best friends had a snowboard magazine that I really wanted to work for. He also had a music magazine, Gabber Music. I started working for that magazine and shot a lot of their parties, as well as others such as Mysteryland and all of the big festivals. I found out that I was the only photographer in Holland at that time that was doing this on a professional level. There were some good club photographers in Amsterdam, but that was really it. There was no one photographing the whole scene as it was back then.”
From then on, Rutger broke through barriers and pushed the boundaries of professional photography. As new technology rolled in and equipment changed over into the digital world, Rutger was one of the first to conquer it and stay creative, later on earning him the 2016 Pop Media award— one of the highest honors an individual in the music industry can receive without being a musician.
“The reason they gave it to me is because I documented almost the whole life of the dance scene. I grew with it. I have photos of Tiësto before he was famous, Armin’s first big gig, which is really unique now. Pretty rare. It wasn’t intentional either. I walked into that and got lucky. I stuck around because I liked it so much. Eventually I got good at it because there weren’t that many people doing this on a high professional level. Back in those days it was still slide film. Nothing was digital. I was one of the first to switch to digital and that was 2003. It was a different ballgame then. It’s not that I invented it, it just happened. I used techniques from skateboarding and snowboarding photography for dance music so I got to experiment and do a lot of new things. I just got lucky and started at the right time.”
With such a decorated career so far, there are still some things that Rutger wishes he took more advantage of at the time. For instance, taking the time to build stronger bonds with the artists he works so closely with. Early on, Rutger was not too keen on the idea of following celebrities. At the time, it seemed like being a groupie. As he progressed through his career, shot more shows, and got more familiar with those he worked alongside, he noticed the importance of those relationships and the positive effect it can have on your work.
“It’s nice to get to know them and make a little effort to say hi to them and their tour managers. Then I realized that they’re super normal people who are very well educated. That made it more fun and easy to photograph them because you build trust. That dynamic turns out to be a lot more fun, helpful, and worthwhile. I should’ve done it a lot earlier. Once they trust you they are more relaxed with you on stage and you can get better shots. Up until four or five years ago, it was pretty rare for a photographer to be on stage for more than five minutes. Now with social media, the emphasis is on photos and it helps because you have better photos if you have more time. If I want to spend an hour sitting behind Armin, no one has a problem with it, which has raised the bar for photography.”
One thing that Rutger, and we are sure many other industry professionals believe, is that success does not come overnight. There will be those first few months or years where money is tight and morale may be low, but you cannot let it discourage you.
As Rutger advises, you won’t be on stage with the biggest names on the lineup within a year. Staying focused, working hard, and constantly trying to improve will forge the path, but it will not be immediate. Even now, Rutger tells us that he is very careful with finances and such—a habit that formed in the beginning of his career when things were tight.
Although, the hard work and long hours generate the most amazing and sincere moments. For Rutger, a moment of clarity revealing the duality of his life made him realize how fortunate he truly is.
“There’s an anecdote that I used in my book. It was the first time I shot Ultra Music Festival somewhere outside of Miami. We were in Buenos Aires. I had done Bogota, Chile, and then Buenos Aires so three cities in three nights. It was all Dutch guys so we were all hanging out and it was really fun. Hardwell was pouring everyone Jägermeister during his set. It was such a cool moment because it was 5 or 6am, my first trip in South America, and then I thought ‘oh great in exactly 48 hours, I’ll be in the school yard bringing my kids to school.’ It was such a weird moment. At home, I’m the house dad taking care of my kids, to and from school, etc., but then at the same time I’m in between 30,000 people at a rave across the world. It’s amazing.”
Following our dreams is one thing, achieving them is another, but having the best of both worlds is something very few have the pleasure of experiencing. Focusing on the positive and letting that inspire him throughout his life is, we believe, the perfect recipe for success.
“I stopped watching the news a while ago. It just brings you down. The world is a good place. And there are lots of good people living in it. We should think more positively and eventually we’ll get there. Just be nice to each other. I think the music industry sets a good example. Look at Tomorrowland and the photo with all the flags at Nicky Romero’s set. There are 120 different nationalities dancing together. Just two years ago there were five people with flags I didn’t recognize. They turned out to be all of the Yugoslavian countries that are now separated. In the 90’s they fought in a horrible war and now there are these five happy kids dancing together. It was such a powerful moment. Music can accomplish so much if we allow it to. Just focus on the positivity. It’s too easy to focus on the negative.”