Crossing Europe is a photo project where I travelled 42 European Countries and took pictures in each Capital City: of people crossing the street on busy intersections.
The book will be published and ready from 7 November 2015. I'll present the book in Paris (12 till 15 November at Paris Photo Fair) and on 20 November I will launch the book with a boog signing in Amsterdam at the PhotoQ Bookshop.
You can already order the book here: http://www.poike.nl/buy-crossing-europe
As far as the eye can see
Living round the corner from Muntplein in Amsterdam meant I used to pass it several times a day. And 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 act- ing 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 ‘Heads’ he captured city life, using an infrared-activated shutter linked to a strobe light. Camera and flash were hidden somewhere in pub- lic. 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 sev- eral angles and acquired multiple shadows. This produced an almost sur- realistic 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, com- ing from a different angle, would make them stand out; and emphasise 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 unno- ticed as far as possible.
The pictures I then took in Amsterdam expressed something I could rec- ognise 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 situations, 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.
And after that 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 pho- tography assistants and accommodation. Crowd-funding helped raise the funds for the project.
To comprehend Europe as a whole, however, was a huge challenge.
The last few years have been turbulent. And what did I really know of the different countries? What 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 recognise themselves as I could recognise 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 differ- ent, or what conflicts with our own customs. We don’t necessarily notice the familiar. Only after a while do we recognise what we have in common. But globalisation 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 the inevitable smartphone; seeking the same luxu- ries, the same amusements. We have identical roads and shopping streets, the same infrastructures. Our urban surroundings have become increas- ingly 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.
Thus I was set: for Crossing Europe.
To me it did not matter if the countries were EU members, potential mem- bers or non-members. Other people were often surprised: they assume Europe covers some 30 countries. 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. More and more European countries have joined for economic reasons. But is there something else that unites us as Europeans? Some- thing 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 prac- tice?
The specific moments that I chose to photograph were when people needed to cross the street; somewhere, anywhere. That would give me a starting point from which to learn how people behaved. I saw them hesi- tate or hurry, being irritated or waiting patiently; following the rules or deliberately ignoring them. Where was their focus? Within themselves or out 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.
As I mentioned earlier, I limited the photographic subject deliberately. But I came to recognise that there were other limitations at play, such as those arising from my own personal preferences; these sometimes the result of my own experiences, my own nature. And I, too, had my own inner preoccupations: leaving behind a sick father and other family mat- ters in the Netherlands. Something as simple as wanting to send him a postcard before I left could put a limitation on the work.
And did I really capture what was typically Dublin? Or Athens? Reykjavik or Ankara? After all, my observations were only moments in time. Was it a normal working day or holiday time? Even the sun shining or the rain fall- ing could make a great difference. Moreover I was only a visitor, passing through. That was just one more limitation I had to reckon with.
Would I be able to find out what was typical or characteristic in such var- ied circumstances? My photographic records alone might not be suffi- cient. 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 enthusi- asm, their personal stories. They told me about their history, about their hopes for the future.
I came to realise that Europe is more than just an area of land or a finan- cial 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 and homog- enising force of globalisation?
Europe as an idea could be realised, 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. I know
I would be sorry to see this diversity disappear for the sake of commercial gain.
Crossing Europe I discovered that even by watching people traverse the street we may find that what makes us Europeans together is as much our similarities as our differences.