Photojournalist Jeroen Swolfs
195 countries in seven years.
For most of us, the idea of travelling for seven straight years taking photos around the world seems like a pipedream. But for photojournalist, Jeroen Swolfs, that’s exactly what he did. In 2009, Jeroen set out to visit every country in the world and document the street life in each one. Seven years later, he’s visited 195 countries and has released a book called Streets of the World to showcase his adventure. His exhibition opens in Amsterdam this week.
We chatted to Jeroen about his journey, travelling the world and his exhibition in what used to be a factory of death.
Calling Streets of the World simply a project feels like it underplays the enormity of this journey – you’ve been at this for 7 years! What kept you motivated?
True. It feels like a lifetime. It's strange that it's finally done. During Streets I often thought it would never end just because it was so enormous. But if you keep doing one country after another, eventually you’ll get there.
Reaching that ultimate goal kept me mentally motivated.
Did you ever think about giving up, was there ever a tipping point?
I just couldn't give up. I was living my dream! Though I did often think, “What the hell did I get myself into?” But I was mostly motivated by the thousands of people I saw in all those streets who’d never get the kind of chance that I did. In a way, I felt obligated to make this happen; to tell the stories of their daily lives and try to get the message across to as many people as possible.
It was such an ambitious project – did you ever envisage you’d actually manage to get to every country in the world?
I did a lot of travel before I started so I knew it would be possible to get into most countries without too much trouble. There are journalists in every country and definitely all the war zones, so I knew it could be done, I just had to arrange it for myself.
I still have three countries left though. Yemen is difficult. Only Doctors without Borders are there now, as far as I know and a friend of mine is running that mission. She told me to wait it out a bit.
I just lost a friend in Libya half a year ago so I'm holding that one off too for now. And then there's Equatorial Guinea, which I’ve tried many times to get into – including texting with one of the Princes – but to no avail. They just don’t trust me. Strange bunch. But I'm determined to get those remaining three too!
© Jeroen Swolfs
You’ve said that you wanted to show the world about what makes us the same, rather than makes us different – was that why you started to the project, or did this idea start to present itself as you went along?
When I began Streets I thought it would just be a really interesting way to get similar shots of street life in all the capitals. I was sure that would become a very interesting reportage about human life around the world. Quite early into the project I started noticing that people everywhere were doing the same stuff. Enjoying time with friends, working, laughing, loving; there’s always children, animals, always people joking around – these things are happening all over the world. So I started focusing on those themes more and more while I was photographing and I tried to choose positive themes because negativity gets more than enough attention already.
What’s been the most difficult part of the project?
Seven years travelling by yourself does tend to get to you. Although you also grow quite fond of it.
What’s been the one story that’s stayed with you?
There have been some truly amazing love stories. I couldn’t choose between those. Let alone between all the other crazy, impressive, exciting and frightening things that happened during those seven years. So much happened that I wrote a whole book about it!
An image is just that, a single moment in time, yet your idea of Constructive Journalism is all about the whole story – how do you make these two juxtapositions work together?
An image is just a moment, but what matters is the image you choose to share. The angle you choose. There are always angles to every story. Of course violence, blood and sex sells best, so if it's money you're after that's how to get it the quickest. But by doing that, you’re telling only one side of the whole story. The idea of Constructive Journalism is to try to tell the whole story – the reasons for the conflict, the possible solutions. Putting it all into a bigger context.
There must be dozens of stories that deserve to be told in every country but you’ve managed to limit yourself to a single photo for the book – how do you choose just one to represent an entire country?
Although Streets of the World showcases photographs of street life in all the capitals of all the countries of the world, in essence that's not what the project is about. It's not about capitals or countries. I choose capitals in countries because that's the only way I could come up with to somehow capture humanity. It really is about what we share as humans, what we are doing in all those streets that binds us and makes us into one race that is connected. The capitals and countries are just the places where these things happen. But what happens is what Streets is all about, not where it happens.
The setting for the exhibition seems particularly compelling – why did you choose Hembrug? A site that had previously been used to build weapons.
We set up the exhibition in a building that was previously named ‘death’. The site was used by the Dutch army to develop mustard gas, design new ordinances and even build weapons. Now it's a very creative place with all sorts of other entrepreneurs.
It felt good to bring street life from all over the world to such a place. The buildings that we use for the museum feel very industrial, which works well with the type of photos I took for Streets. The journey there from Amsterdam is even nice, so you're already travelling before you start your journey around the world at our museum.
© Jeroen Swolfs
What’s been the most important country to you personally?
Personally I learned an important lesson in Rwanda. I was photographing in the streets of Kigali and I thought all those big Rwandese guys looked quite unfriendly. The fact there had been a genocide there 20 years before didn't really help. They were having a good time amongst themselves and in a weird way I felt left. I thought, Could it be me? Then I realized that I had adopted quite an aggressive posture myself. So I decided to change my appearance and started smiling at every guy that passed by. Immediately the whole mood changed and people started smiling back at me! People started asking questions. It turned into a lovely afternoon. From then on that’s what I kept doing. I think it made the project a lot easier and more fun.
What’s been the most difficult
For me Somalia was the most difficult. It was hard to get in, very unsafe. All the places I visited were attacked afterwards including my hotel and the beach that I photographed. People I got to know were killed in those attacks.
What tips do you have for telling visual stories?
Choose a subject you really care about. I think that more than half of the story you tell is not about the photos but about what you yourself think makes it special. Combine that with your unique style and it will become amazing.
© Jeroen Swolfs
Streets of the World was so ambitious, how will you top that? What’s next for you?
Well I had this idea to walk across Canada and photograph everything along the way, but perhaps I'll put that off for a while. I first need to share Streets of the World with as many people I can.
What kit do you use?
I've always used the 5D with the 16-35 mm lens. That was the only thing I would bring. That way I would seem like a very enthusiastic amateur but still a tourist and not need a press visa in half the countries I visited. But I would still be able to make fantastic photos because it's a terrific camera and lens. Also during the past seven years I went from 5D Mark I to Mark IV. They just get better and better.
The Streets of the World book is available now. The exhibition is runs from the 16th of June until the 30th September.
Answers edited for clarity and pacing.
Jeroen’s Kit Bag
EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM
Interview credit: Written by Martin Fleming