Universiteit Leiden

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Isabelle Bijman en Julia van Alem

City Photographer for a year: ‘Unfortunately, I found that I’m not really very visual’

Julia van Alem had never held a camera before, but she and her classmates were appointed as the City Photographer. ‘This project helped me learn how to create my own work better.’

‘All those buttons, settings... it made me dizzy,’ says Van Alem, recalling her introduction to the camera in her first week as a master’s student in Journalism and New Media. ‘Some people already had experience with photography, but most of us were mainly focused on written journalism.’

Nevertheless, from the first day of the programme, Van Alem and her 36 classmates spent a year as the City Photographer. They went out in pairs, looking for stories that fitted the theme Leiden in extremen (Leiden in extremes), which were published in the Leidsch Dagblad. ‘I didn’t immediately think: this will be fine, I’m going to take a great photo,’ says Van Alem. ‘But I did immediately feel that this theme offered me the opportunity to filter out some great stories from the city.’

Feet covered with callouses

One of the subjects she found was a postman who does his rounds barefoot. ‘I decided to walk with him, also barefoot,’ she says. ‘It was November or December, so by the end of the day my feet were like blocks of ice, but I could certainly let the readers share my experience of walking barefoot. The photograph with the story actually turned out really well: you can see the bottom of his feet, covered with cracked callouses.’


In fact, that photograph was taken by Van Alem’s pair-partner. ‘I found that I’m just not really very visual,’ she laughs. ‘So after we were given the assignment, I soon started thinking about how I could make the project more suitable for me. That’s when I suggested the idea of making a podcast. This became De Stadsfotograaf (the City Photographer), which gave my classmates the space to tell their stories in more than the four hundred words we were allowed by the newspaper.’

Van Alem now works at the Volkskrant as a podcast maker. ‘De Stadsfotograaf gave me the courage to just start making things; because it went so well, I had the self-confidence to do the same for other people. After all, in journalism you often have to create your own work, so it’s fantastic that the project allowed me to learn about this in advance.’

You can listen to Van Alem’s podcast De Stadsfotograaf on Apple Podcasts. The video below was made by other Journalism and New Media students as a retrospective of their year as the City Photographer.

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