Living around the corner from the Muntplein in Amsterdam meant I used to pass it several times a day. It would often cheer me up just to see the life going on in those few square metres.

I like watching crowds. I started studying people crossing at the intersection, observing their interactions and the way they moved. Initially I experienced them as acting in groups, organically, in orderly or in chaotic fashion. But within the dense movement one or more individuals would soon stand out from the crowd.

Sometimes I would be reminded of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s work. In his series “Head” he captured city life, using an infrared-activated shutter linked to a strobe light. Camera and flash were hidden somewhere in public. There was no photographer: people triggered the shutter with their movements, unknowingly recording their actions.

I was deeply impressed by the resulting images of such natural behaviour, such a natural state of mind; of people totally absorbed in their own world. During a stay in New York I was struck by the effect of sunlight reflecting off the plate glass buildings around me: people were illuminated from several angles and acquired multiple shadows. This produced an almost surrealistic atmosphere. Unfamiliar, otherworldly.

In my work I wanted to put people in the spotlight, like actors on a stage. More than that, I wanted a spotlight to illuminate them. This light, coming from a different angle, would make them stand out; and emphasize the chance encounters that took place; single moments frozen in time.

But it would be important not to interfere in people’s actions, to remain unnoticed as far as possible. The pictures I then took in Amsterdam expressed something I could recognise as a typical Amsterdam atmosphere: people showing an almost brash attitude, spontaneous and direct; sometimes ignoring the rules. It made me wonder if I could translate this experiment to other cities.

Shortly afterwards I visited Madrid and Berlin, London and Paris. I tried to capture moments that would portray the atmosphere, interactions and attitudes possibly characteristic of those cities. Could I make these things visible? I was often surprised.

Once I got going, I wanted to extend the series, to cover all the capitals of Europe.

Through social media, Europe shrank to a manageable size. Text messages and e-mails enabled me to contact people who could help find local photography assistants and accommodation. Crowd-funding helped raise the funds for the project.

Still, to comprehend Europe as a whole was a huge challenge.

The last few years have been turbulent. And what did I really know of the different countries? All that I knew came from history, reading, film and television, the press. What did I know about their capital cities? Some I had visited. Many I had not. I wondered if their citizens would be able to recognize themselves as I could recognize my fellow Amsterdammers. But that’s what I hoped to achieve, as I set out to portray inhabitants of each of the 42 European capitals.

When we arrive in unknown territory we tend to focus on what is different, or what conflicts with our own customs. We don’t necessarily notice the familiar. Only after a while do we recognize what we have in common.

But globalization is everywhere. That is plain to see in any general street view. Cultural characteristics have faded and similarities are all around us. We Europeans have begun to look more and more alike; wearing the same clothes, carrying an (inevitable) smartphone; seeking the same luxuries, the same amusements. We have identical roads and shopping streets, the same infrastructures. Our urban surroundings have become increasingly similar. And so has our behaviour.

For my project it was important to restrict the field of view, to focus on a particular activity. I chose to observe people at a pedestrian crossing in a busy street. That would give me a starting point from which to learn how people behaved. I saw them hesitate or hurry, being irritated or waiting patiently; following the rules or deliberately ignoring them. Where was their focus? Within themselves or on their own personal goal? Were they paying attention to the other people around them? Was there some kind of communication? Did they interact intentionally? What was chance or coincidence? It takes several seconds to walk over to the other side, enough time for plenty of minor encounters. And if you looked closely, you saw many little stories being told: people reacting to people. Just as in the wider world. A crossing: a metaphor for human life.

Thus I was set: Crossing Europe.

***

When I said I would be going to 42 countries, people were often surprised. Wasn’t Europe just a couple dozen countries. 30, maybe? But Europe is more, a lot more, than the EU. The Balkans and the Baltic are part of the continent too, for instance. The EU started with the creation of a trading community; for commercial benefit. But is there something else that unites us as Europeans? Something other than just sharing a continent and seeking economic profit? The European Union is an idea, but is it an idea that can be put into practice?

Speaking of this idea, I knew that my (surface) photographic records alone would not be sufficient. I needed to meet the inhabitants. These were my local helpers, who usually lived and worked in the cities I visited; and people I met by chance in the street. I needed to share part of their lives: eating, drinking, talking together. That is when they revealed their souls to me: in their passions, through their personal stories. They told me about their history, about their hopes for the future.

I came to realize that Europe is more than just an area of land or a financial agreement. But what will Europe’s future be? Do we cherish what unites us or do we focus on what divides us? Is our common European identity stronger than financial, cultural and political obstacles? And can our cultural differences survive the seemingly unstoppable homogenizing force of globalisation?

Europe as an idea could be realized, but it will require a great deal of effort. It will not be achieved overnight. It will require interest and real concern. We must meet the other with empathy. And when we go abroad, we need to keep an open mind and not bother too much about giving up some of the customs of home. Only then may we learn to truly appreciate the beautiful diversity of Europe’s countries and ways of life.

In “Crossing Europe,” I discovered that just by watching people traverse the street, we might find that what makes us Europeans together is as much our similarities as our differences.

—Poike Stomps

Editor’s Note: This compelling street series was selected as a finalist in the Open category of the Magnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlight award winners.

Stomps was also one of the 31 winners and finalists of the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2015.