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Photographer focuses on every capital in the world

By Stephanie Steinberg, Special to CNN
  • Jeroen Swolfs is challenging himself to photograph all the world's capitals in five years
  • The 36-year-old from Holland calls his project "Streets of the World"
  • Swolfs has visited 58 countries in the past two years.
  • The traveler says North Korea was one of the hardest countries to take a photo of

(CNN) -- Jeroen Swolfs is on a mission to photograph all 194 capitals in the world in five years.

The ambitious 36-year-old from Amsterdam has already visited 58 countries in the last two years as part of a project he started called Streets of the World. During the four or five days Swolfs stays in each capital, he scours the city's streets to take one photo that captures the essence of the country.

Swolfs discovered his passion for traveling as a freelance photojournalist working for Dutch newspapers and magazines. After a few years, he said he wanted to use his talents to "do something a little bit more radical."

He said he's fascinated by the way "life unfolds in places" and came up with the idea to document people, cultures and cities around the world in a way that has never been done.

Swolfs spent eight years finding sponsors to fund his adventure before starting his journey in Bangkok, Thailand. Since then, he's written a book called "Streets of the World" -- which is only available in Dutch -- and this month, Swolfs celebrated the second anniversary of his travels.

CNN caught up with Swolfs while he was in Mexico City for a few days shooting a documentary and scouting the streets for a photo. Swolfs chatted via Skype while sitting outside his hotel room. The conversation has been edited after losing a few words from the shaky Internet connection and chirping birds in the background.

CNN: This journey is about taking meaningful photos. How do you find the picture-perfect spot?

Swolfs: When I get to a destination it's all about finding the space, which is kind of difficult. It usually involves two days of walking around the center of the capital. After I've found a place, it usually takes another two days to take a good photo.

CNN: What do you do when you're not taking pictures?

Swolfs: When I'm in a capital, I will prepare for the next one. I will be going to Guatemala after this so I will start preparing so I know the history of the country as well as its politics and social issues.

CNN: Do you only take pictures of streets?

It's not always a street. I've taken pictures of people that live on the water or sometimes it's parks or markets. It's called "Streets of the World," but it's basically about street life in the center of the capital.

CNN: What are you ultimately trying to achieve?

Swolfs: I try to show that there are more similarities between these spaces than we think. People want the same things all over the world. They just want a little bit of a better life for themselves and their children. I see that everywhere.

It's also about dreams that can come true, because this was my dream. Even something crazy like this, if you're really motivated, you can make it happen. I don't even know if I'm going to finish it. I might be shot somewhere along the line. I don't know what's going to happen, but the fact that I'm able to do it and I'm living this amazing dream of being able to tell this story is what I think is special about this project.

"I try to show that there are more similarities between these spaces than we think."
--Jeroen Swolfs

CNN: What's your favorite capital you've visited so far?

Swolfs: It's complicated because a word like "favorite" or "the nicest" doesn't really apply any more because all those spaces in their own way were amazing. Of course some were more relaxed or beautiful than others, but even the ugly ones that are war torn were also really fascinating because of what happened or how people are trying to survive. So I can't really decide any more as far as a favorite goes because even in the worst countries I've met the most lovely people.

CNN: You've visited countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Have you run into any dangerous situations?

Swolfs: I've been to Papua, New Guinea, which nobody really ever goes to because it's really dangerous. I needed five bodyguards to go to the market and take photos. They were armed, and they needed to be because we were being targeted even with those five guys. We had to really hurry and get the hell out of there.

CNN: What was one of the most difficult countries to take a photo in?

Swolfs: I went to North Korea just before Christmas. I went as a tourist because you can't go as a journalist. You have to sign a paper stating that you're not a journalist, and you haven't been one for the past year, which in my case was not true. So you start as a lie, which in the case of North Korea is not a good idea. The tour groups don't let you out of their sight so it was really hard for me to ditch the group and be by myself even for a few minutes.

My tour group had two American skateboarders. One of them was Kenny Reed, who is this really famous American professional skateboarder. They actually came on the bus with skateboards, and they took off all the time because they were making a skateboard movie. So the tour guides had to run after them all the time because they just ran out of the bus with their skateboards.

It was perfect for me because when they took off, I walked swiftly through the street by myself. You cannot be alone in Pyongyang, but I had five minutes because of the skateboarders to take a photo of Korea. I think it's one of the best photos in the whole project.

CNN: Why was that your favorite photo?

Swolfs: It's this surreal image. There's this beautiful traffic policewoman on this massive street where there are absolutely no cars. She doesn't really have a function, but she's just there to be present. Then there's the most robotic people walking around, but there's this little kid that looks up to his father so there's a small human story even in that photo.

CNN: What's something you have learned throughout your journey?

Swolfs: I've learned that people are a lot nicer than everybody thinks. There's a lot of bad stuff that happens everywhere, but there's also all these cool, nice and lovely people. Those are the kind of people I want to talk about, and I want to show.

CNN: You were in Washington, D.C., in the beginning of July. What did you think of the United States?

Swolfs: I really had a hard time with the States because your country is such a complicated story. There's all these things I love about it, but there's so many things that I really don't understand. This is what makes "Streets of the World" so hard. It's only one photo per country, so how do I show American life in one photo when I myself am really confused about what I think about America?

CNN: What did you take a picture of?

Swolfs: I'm actually not really happy with it. I ended up in a park where people were having lunch, and it was this mixed group of people, which I think represents the States. So there were blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics. But I don't really know if I succeeded in Washington. I think I'm going to try to return, and try again and take more time.

CNN: You travel by yourself. Do you ever get lonely or return to Holland?

Swolfs: Yeah, it's kind of lonely. I go back to Holland about three times a year. I have a very big family, and everybody gets together once or twice a year. Christmas is one of those times, so I always make an effort to be there. I try to get back every few months since the pace is really high. After 10 countries, I start to go crazy myself.

CNN: What's the best food you've had?

Swolfs: I spent a lot of time in Bangkok. I really loved the energy and food .. and I don't mean Thai food from a Thai restaurant. I mean the food from the streets. Its really simple, but it's so spicy and flavorous, and it's dirt cheap. It's the whole atmosphere around it. It's like a whole experience just having a bowl of soup. I actually really miss that.