Jeroen Swolfs: What the World Capitals and Their Citizens Look Like
One time, Dutch photographer Jeroen Swolfs got drunk and fell right on the pavement. After that, he decided to take pictures of the streets of all the capitals of the world. In seven years, he took photographs of 192 cities. Bird In Flight publishes some of those pictures.
Photojournalist from the Netherlands, lives in Amsterdam. Graduated from Utrecht University and the Amsterdam Photo Academy. Worked for Volkskrant and Amsterdam Weekly newspapers, as well as for the Rijksmuseum.
— I really wanted to make a project about the world in which the emphasis would be on humanity. Trying to show the world in the positive way — commonalities instead of differences. One night I got really drunk and I just felt on the pavement in Amsterdam. I looked at the pavement and thought — this street is the way to go. I came home with this crazy idea to photograph street life in the center of the capitals.
The first country was Moldova. I did a test case in 10 countries, and I saw that the concept worked. Then, I traveled to Asia and Pacific, after that to the Americas and Africa, and finally Europe.
The entire project took me ten years: seven years of travelling and three years of finding a budget. It was supposed to be five, but it was extended mostly due to visa issues and because I started to write a book. I took photographs in 192 countries. I still have six to go, but basically the project is ready.
I spent 4–5 days in each capital, two days working around looking for the right place and finding the right composition, and then two days waiting for something to happen that falls into the categories recurring in the photos: positive themes such as friendship, children, people working together, laughter, and also hope and perseverance.
This project is not about the cities, it is about people. I’m not trying to show a city — I’m trying to show the way people live in certain places. It’s actually more important what people are doing in these photos than where it was taken. And there’s no photo without people.
If you ask people in the West “What’s your idea of Russia or Moscow?” — this image is not what you think about. But it is also very important for me to surprise people with this project. People would probably never guess this picture was taken in Moscow, if not for some signs in Cyrillic. Most people think Moscow is this dark, cold place with the mafia running the place. In my photograph you see children, swings, a girl with pink hair, and a girl in flippers. I was surprised myself. It’s about trying to show another side of the story, the unknown side.
In 2007, there was a car bombing on this street [Mutanabbi Street] in front of the tea house which is a quite famous old tea house — a very busy place where creative people and intellectuals would meet — writers, poets and artists. This place was totally ruined but they immediately started rebuilding it and there was a whole movement of people donating books and helping rebuild this street. The tea house was also totally renovated. I went there and met the guy who lost his four sons in the attack. I spoke to him which was very special. When the bombing happened he left the tea house to go shopping. The bomb exploded and killed his entire family.
I read about this before I came to Iraq and I decided — this is the story I want to photograph. Bombings and attacks like that happen every day, but in the end, life goes on and they choose to move on.
A regular street in Kabul, nothing bad is happening, there’s not even many photos from Afghanistan that show what it actually looks like. But, of course, the main story is this lady. At the end, this photo is about female sexuality and the oppression of femininity. Even though you don’t see her, she is still very feminine. In every city or street scene there is always a main theme in every photo.
This photo is also about female sexuality and femininity. It’s the same thing – the market with the woman being the main character. And she is very open and very sexual and proud of it. She is kind of turning this whole market into her private catwalk and doing a really good job. And she comes forward to me being very open and smiling and it’s completely the opposite from what is happening in the other photo.