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Rebel Dutch photographer to stimulate debate
Updated: 2004-11-25 13:27

Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf has built a career out of testing the limits of public taste and free expression.

Paradise Portraits
His portfolio of provocative pictures designed to stir up debate range from scantily clad older women to lecherous clowns, orgies, a blood-soaked Princess Diana look-a-like and a semi-nude self-portrait in which Olaf wears a leather bustier.

One of the best known photographers in The Netherlands, Olaf rejects criticism that he is simply selling sensation.

"I want the world I create with my photos to be one that captures both the eye and the mind," Olaf told Reuters. "It's not just eye candy that I am creating."

The 45-year-old image artist insists he wants to force people to think harder to see the deeper meaning in his work.

"I want to challenge people with my photos. I want to change them in some way, to make them think," he said.

Olaf's Royal Blood series, which includes the Diana look-a-like picture, attempts to stir debate about public fascination with fame and violence by using blond models to portray celebrities who met a violent end.

Royal Blood

The tiara-wearing look-alike stares out at a camera in a pose not unlike those in actual portraits taken of Diana.

But Olaf's image bears a bloody wound on her arm in which a Mercedes logo has been embedded. The Scottish Daily Record branded the photograph "a tasteless reminder" of the Paris car accident in which she died.

Other photos in the series include a bullet-riddled Russian Empress Alexandra, a headless Marie Antoinette, and a pair of Jacqueline Kennedy images set before and after her husband's assassination.

"Look at all the violence there is in the world. Think about the movies being made today. We worship violence. This is something we should discuss," Olaf said.

The photographs are jarring not just due to their violence, but also because Olaf's subjects are posed like fashion models, seemingly unaware of what has befallen them.

Despite criticism, Olaf -- who started out in photo journalism but found "reality kept getting in the way" -- is unrepentant.

"People don't have to like what I do. I'm happy as long as I get them to talk about the issues," he said.

Violence and free expression are the subject of another series, Paradise, the inspiration for which was a circus-themed party at Amsterdam club Paradiso.

In it a group of lecherous clowns assault young women at a party that has gone from celebration to orgy.

The photographs, with effects edited in digitally as often is the case much of Olaf's current work, are a riot of color and movement.

They are also unsettling, partly because the violence in them is not always apparent at first glance.

They are a commentary, Olaf says, on the threat to free speech in many places around the world.

"The opportunity to express ourselves in the way we want is still under attack -- even more now than in a very long time," Olaf said.

While Olaf's work has often made him a target of criticism, it has also won him a long string of big ticket advertising clients like beer maker Heineken, car maker BMW, software giant Microsoft and Finnish mobile phone manufacturer Nokia.

Photographs for them are imbued with the same wit that highlights so much of Olaf's work such as an ad for Diesel's jeans Antique Dirty Denim in which a lusty grandmother makes advances on her snoozing spouse.

But not everything Olaf has done is meant to be provocative.

He has embraced topics ranging from the mentally handicapped to Czech artist and architect Borek Sipek, one of the world's most influential contemporary designers, all the while experimenting with color, light and digital technology.

"What I do isn't about shocking people. It's about capturing the world in the way I see it," Olaf said. "That doesn't always mean I want to raise eyebrows and hear people say how daring I am."

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