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Interview: James Bird
Images and WordsIlja Meefout

You've seen the photos. There's two of them: both with Snoop Dogg staring right through your own eyes whilst wearing an Ajax shirt and holding a juicy-looking blunt in his hand. They're sensational. The most flawless of first-time handshakes. The perfect combo. And, Ilja Meefout is the man who took them.

Ilja is a 38-year-old from Bijlmermeer, a neighbourhood in the southeast of Amsterdam. It wasn't his original ambition to be a photographer: he moved to Utrecht to study Graphic Design but got quickly bored of the city and moved back to Amsterdam to start working in a cinema. One day, Ilja walked out of the cinema mid-shift, picked up his camera, and hasn’t looked back since.

Sat outside a hot, tired bar after a hot, tired day a few years ago, Ilja started telling me some stories. He’s taken photos of just about every rapper you’ve ever had in your ears. Ice Cube in LA, 50 Cent in a gigantic mink coat, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, and there's that time he rolled around New York with RZA after Wu Tang Clan sold their Once Upon a Time in Shaolin album to Martin Shkreli. That one's for another time, though. Then, Ilja pulled out his phone and showed me the two photos of Snoop. I was in awe: a kid seeing a magic trick for the first time. This is how the hell he managed to capture them.

“I grew up in a single parent household in arguably the roughest part of Amsterdam a notorious neighbourhood called Kraaiennest (K-Zone 1104). Here, everyone is playing football or making music or being creative in a certain way. Football and hip-hop are two things incredibly important to the area; they really come together as one where I’m from.

“Hip-hop is a really big part of my life, it helped me through a lot of situations when growing up in a house that didn’t have very much money, it was almost like the male voice in our household, which is why it’s so important to me to give the people who are making the music the coverage they deserve.
“My photography career has grown quite organically. Where I’m from, a lot of my friends are producers or DJs or rappers themselves, so I brought a camera along if anyone had a video shoot, or if someone was making beats, or if my neighbours, who were a rap group, were making music. Then I bought a better lens and started shooting concerts and getting paid for it.

“Snoop Dogg did a performance at the Milky Way, a small venue in the centre of Amsterdam, and I heard that during his smoke break he played a song by a Dutch rap group called De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig (The Youth of Today) who make really funky, really cool music. The group’s label thought next time Snoop is in Holland, they should meet each other.

“A year or so later, Snoop was again performing in Amsterdam but this time at a much bigger venue—the Heineken Music Hall next to the Amsterdam Arena. There was a genuine idea to make Snoop the official mayor of Amsterdam for one day. The actual mayor. Honestly. The real mayor of Amsterdam was fully down for it and was going to present Snoop with his official mayoral chain, and the rap group would be his legislators. In that sense, Snoop would have actually been the mayor of Amsterdam. Then, at the last minute, the mayor pulled out—nobody’s sure why but it’s not difficult to see why there could be problems. So, instead, the group I was with had to go to a weird meet and greet thing with Snoop afterwards. It felt like we were going to meet the Queen or something, it was incredibly official.

“I walked into the room, looked at Snoop and immediately saw that he had the Ajax jersey on. Of course, I’m a massive fan of both Snoop and Ajax. The group I was with are usually really cocky boys, almost like the Beastie Boys or someone like that; they’re jokers and can give you bullshit answers all day. But in front of Snoop, they were really quiet and timid. So shy. So the conversation went really bad really quickly, just the six of us standing there in a circle—the four guys from the rap group, me, and Snoop. And, to make things worse, the producer from the hip-hop group didn’t bring any beats or a CD, so it was a bit of a missed opportunity for them. I was just watching Snoop and was like “Damn, this is Snoop Dogg in an Ajax shirt. This is just amazing. I have to take a photo of this.” But I was there as a reportage photographer, more like a fly on the wall—and to get a shot of these guys together was my only brief.

“I thought to myself that we were probably going to get chucked out of here in a few minutes, and I have to take a chance on it. While we’d all been standing, I’d already been scouting out the room for what would be the best place to take a shot. I saw this grey door and thought if I switch my lens, I can make it almost look like a studio shot and there won’t be any of the clutter or any of the other people in the photo. So I’d gone through it in my mind, and then I started to adjust the flash on my camera, and I was already secretly firing some test shots, and then I just went for it.

““Snoop, can I take your photo please?” And he was stood up for me and did a West Side pose in the middle of the room, but I told him that I wanted to do it in front of the door and so he just walked over and stood in front of it. “CLICK”, straight away, I took the close up one, and then I looked and thought fuck, maybe you don’t see enough of the Ajax shirt in it so I asked if I could take one more, took a step back and “CLICK”, and that was that. Just two frames. That was that. I was very lucky, I shouldn’t have asked, and he was very generous. He gave me double—I asked for one and he gave me two. I can’t even remember if he said anything, it went by very quickly. I’d say the whole thing was a maximum of five seconds.

“Even though the idea of him becoming mayor for the day and wearing the chain didn’t come off, I think that him in the Ajax shirt is a much better representation of Amsterdam. Nobody would remember a photo of him with a chain around his neck, that’s already the cliché image of a rapper, and so that wouldn’t have been a photo that anyone would notice or remember. And so now, everyone in Holland knows this photo.

“Ajax is a cultural institution. Even if we’re not one of the top sides in Europe at the moment. We have such a strong identity, a real sense of personality. It probably has to do with the atmosphere in Amsterdam. Our most famous playing style—the possession based attacking way that maybe Barcelona play an evolved version of now—is probably to do with the atmosphere in Amsterdam. The positivity, the innovation. Amsterdam is a very open place. It’s very liberal—all of the things you think you know about Amsterdam are probably true. People feel like they can be whoever they want to be.

“Amsterdam and Ajax are connected by a sense of pride—by the philosophy and culture that they both represent. The Netherlands is a very small country, and you might go to places in the world where people wouldn’t be able to point on a map where it is—but they’ve probably heard of Ajax and Cruyff.

“I think these photos represent the things that helped me through life, the things that were and are always there for me. The things that I grew up with. We didn’t have much and this is what I had. That's why it’s probably so valuable to me: Football, hip-hop and creativity. I’m really happy that if someone knows me, then this is the photo they know me by. If he was wearing any other shirt, I probably wouldn’t have even taken the chance on asking to take his photo. In that way, he’s helped my own career.

“Snoop Dogg in an Ajax shirt just makes sense.”This interview originally featured in MUNDIAL Issue 11, which is long sold out. Since then, Ilja has released his first book, '1,2 1,2' a magnificent hardback featuring his portraits of hip-hop artists from down the years. It's brilliant. You can grab yours here.

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