Crossing Europe — People in the Spotlight, Like Actors on a Stage
by Poike Stomps
Living around 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 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 ‘Heads’ 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 on 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 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 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 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.
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. Crowdfunding 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 Amsterdamers. But that’s what I hoped to achieve, as I set out to portray inhabitants of each of the 42 European capitals.
On my travels around Europe I took notes as anecdotes, little stories to give the reader a little insight in my experiences in each city.
My Notes from London: It is not my first trip to London. I have friends living here. I’ve been here on assignments. I’ve been here on holiday and stopovers. The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, black cabs, red buses — none is new to me. But every time I visit I have to get used to the traffic coming from an unexpected direction. It is disorientating, almost a physical shock. It shows just how engrained habits become. This particular custom, of driving on the left, is a very obvious one.
I’m suddenly aware of how much more effort will be needed to discover the cultural habits that are less visible. What does it take to live and work with people from so many countries?
The different districts of London all other different sights. And different crossings. I notice that Londoners generally walk fast, unperturbed by the weather. Some are dressed in black macs and hats, defying the rain with their black umbrellas, waiting obediently for the green signal. Others are in T-shirts, regardless of cold, wet or snow; sometimes risking a red light in rush hour.
The street reminds me of Half Moon Lane, of a photo taken by my father. I can picture him here, among all these Londoners; making his way to Foyles Bookshop. And I remember the postcards he sent me from England and Sweden.
My notes from Paris: There are actresses parading through the Paris streets! Do I care if one of them has just had a trying morning in the studio? No, not really. Not even a lawyer could have convinced me to point my camera the other way. As it turns out, the shot of her is not good enough to use for my project.
However, it has been a useful test, to find out what is allowed regarding photography in the streets of Paris. The rules of CCTV apply equally to photographers. But are they enforced the same way in different countries? And what do people do with any pictures they claim?
Paris is grand and beautiful. But the traffic is hectic, as it is in all big cities. Even so, each city has its own customs.
The same thing happens at zebra crossings. All right, some people might wait till the lights turn green, rather than risk the red light, before stepping into the road. But it is always the confident, forward-moving pedestrians, who win over the stressed and anxious. They simply cross while the others stay behind.
We all cross streets, but we all do it our own way. We are not all alike. Crossing the street is as varied as human life itself. I’ve driven around in Paris several times. And I’ve always loved the frenzy of it all.
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 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 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. Thus I was set: for Crossing Europe.
To me it did not matter if the countries were EU members, potential members 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? 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?
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 hesitate 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 matters 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 falling 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 varied circumstances?
My photographic records alone might 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 enthusiasm, 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 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 and homogenising 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. I know
I would be sorry to see this diversity disappear for the sake of commercial gain.
Through 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.
I’m producing a new project as a follow-up of the ‘Crossing Europe’ series with the
work-title ‘Crossing the USA’. Again, I will go to all capital cities but now in all 50 states of the United States of America and capture busy intersections as I did for Crossing Europe. In addition I will document the daily life of Americans in their country.
Besides that I will document my travels and will follow multiple stories on the road, on subjects such as the energy transition and what people think about the current situation.
How has the American society and/or government been dealing with these issues? With Trump as new president elect — I think this topic is more relevant than ever.
I hope it will be a good cross section of American identity and its inhabitants and for sure it’ll be an interesting road-trip. I’m in contact with newspapers, an americanist and journalists to show and publish my work while I’m traveling and I’m working on more connections for the publication of my work. Since I won the Zilveren Camera I’ve been having a lot of attention, so I think it is the right timing to start and speed up this new project.
Buy Poike’s book ‘Crossing Europe’ here.