Jan Koelinga came into contact with film and photography when he began working for an optician. In his own words, he immediately fell in love with the camera. The next step in his career was a job as a photographer for the socialist newspaper Voorwaarts. Koelinga then worked as a freelance photographer and filmmaker.
In 1932 he made the film De steeg, a documentary about a working-class neighbourhood in Rotterdam. The film was set to music by A.P. Bauer, and was very well received in Filmliga circles. Koelinga remained active as a cameraman and editor in the 1930s, but did not release any more of his own films.
During the Second World War, Koelinga, who was then a member of the Dutch Nazi party NSB, shot film footage for the German company UFA, and for the Nazified Dutch production company Nederland Film. He made several short films, and did the camerawork for the film series Wat een tijd.
After the war, his wartime conduct was not appreciated. Initially, he was put on the non-active list for three years, in the context of ‘film purification’. Thereafter he struggled to find work. During the remainder of his career, he made several commissioned films, and also made two short films.