Freelance photojournalist Jeroen Swolfs has traveled all over the world documenting political and social issues. In his journeys, he began to realize that although the hard-hitting headlines made the news, there was still a lot of good going on around him.
"After working for newspapers and magazines internationally for some years, I started noticing how the emphasis with them is usually on the shocking, hard and negative news. Of course, a lot of bad stuff is happening around the globe every day but I also saw so much good stuff, which never got any attention," Swolfs tells MNN.
"I realized that this results in an imbalanced look upon society and humanity. It all looks so grim doesn't it? But is it that grim?"
So Swolfs came up with "Streets of the World," a project to "try and show a more positive side of daily life around the world with the focus on what connects us, what the good things we are capable of too, the things we share as humans."
It wasn't a visit to one particular street that triggered the idea for the project. Instead, Swolfs realized that maybe taking his camera to the streets would help him capture the positive that he knew was everywhere.
"I thought the streets are the best place to look for this," he says. "That's where we converge, where everything we are capable of is visible — the bad, but also most definitely the good."
Swolfs set out to visit and photograph street life in every country in the world. He started in 2009, and it took him seven years to create 195 images in as many countries.
In nearly every case, Swolfs says he went into a country open-minded about what he would photograph. Only in Baghdad and Mogadishu did he pre-select a place because of potential danger.
"I never chose the street I would photograph. I would just stumble upon it," he says.
When he arrived in a new city, he would read up on its history, as well as what was going on with respect to society, government, religion and news. That's not because it would be reflected in the photos, he says, but because it made for better conversation when he met people.
"The visual part, the photography, would always be something I'd find along the way while walking around in the streets," he says. "I would select a place and then just wait it out till people would do something that would fit into one of the themes I was looking for. These themes are things like, friendship, love, laughter, people working together, children, but also in the more difficult places themes like hope, perseverance, brotherhood."
Swolfs says he had a profound experience on Al-Mutanabbi, an ancient street in Baghdad that is home to bookstores and outdoor book stalls. The street was hit by a powerful car bomb in 2007, a bomb that destroyed the whole street and killed more than two dozen people.
"I had read about it and decided beforehand that I wanted to photograph that street. I knew it was rebuilt very fast after the attack," Swolfs says. "In that sense, the bomb had the opposite effect it had intended. It got people together in rebuilding the old street instead of dividing them."
While he was there, Swolfs went to see an old tea house that had been there for generations and was popular with writers, poets and intellectuals. The car with the bomb had been parked outside when the owner was out running an errand, but his four sons and a son-in-law were inside at the time. They didn't survive.
"When I walked in, I bumped right into him, which is unnerving when you know a story like that about someone. What are you going to say?" says Swolfs, who sat down and listened while the man told him about what had happened that day.
"Then he asked me why I was there, which I thought was a fair question. But an awkward one, too, because I had to tell him I was looking for positivity in the street where he lost so much family. But he replied, 'No, I am very happy that you chose my street to show the strength of the Iraqi people, the perseverance and hope. Go and take a good photo and tell people this story.'"
Although the project is set up as one photo per capital, Swolfs obviously took many images in each city, then selected the ones he liked best.
"They are technically all taken in the same way," he explains. "That means same angle, same point of view, same depth of field, same ISO. That resulted in a series of photos ... each has the horizon at the same height in each one of them."
The images are available in an impressive coffee-table book, but are also part of a photo exhibit that has been in Zaandam and Copenhagen in the Netherlands and is set travel to other locations around the world.
"In a sense, you can glue them together and it would be a 400-meter-long photo with the horizon running through it perfectly all the way. That is kind of the experience we want people to have when they visit the [exhibit]. That it's all connected."
Swolfs' images show bustling urban centers, tourist meccas, local hangouts and out-of-the-way discoveries. But they all share an inside look at culture and camaraderie.
"Streets are essential to culture," he says. "They are the common spaces we share in which we can meet each other, talk, disagree, be friendly, learn, confront, love and live. They are the quintessence of cities and they lead us to new places. Without them we would be lost, one could argue."
After taking the images, Swolfs says that the next important step is making sure people see them and pick up on the positive messages from around the world.
"After completing the project, I realized that sharing the message properly might even be more important than photographing it in the first place," he says. "That's why we are setting up these marvelous exhibitions around the world. So that people can come and watch all these streets in all those cities where people are also just living their daily lives. I know now that seeing that, and feeling the things they see to be familiar, really makes people a bit happier and more optimistic"
"Streets of the World" is from Lannoo Publishers and is available for purchase here.