The Europeans: capturing modern Europe as it faces an era of change

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An ambitious ongoing project by photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen puts the spotlight on peripheral European heartlands

This article was published in issue #7891 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

When Henri Cartier-Bresson published his landmark book, Les Européens, in 1955 – comprising photographs shot across the continent throughout five postwar years – he established an incisive portrait of a weary continent, its people and landscape bearing the irreversible scars of recent history. This was Europe on the cusp of seismic change: a population once divided by unprecedented conflict was united by a common effort to overcome its ravages, ushering in a hopeful new era of resilience, reconciliation, and a burgeoning sense of collective identity.

Sixty-five years on, with disparate waves of populism and authoritarianism threatening the very foundations of the European project that emerged in Cartier-Bresson’s time, Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen see the continent on the eve of a drastic reversal. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Europe has a completely different face in 10 years,” Hornstra notes. “With this project, we want to create a kind of timepiece that people can take off the shelves somewhere in the future and find a snapshot of our age.”

Sirvydai, LITHUANIA, 2019 - At the end of a muddy path deep in a forest at about thirty kilometres from Kaunas you can find a gigantic pig farm. Forty years ago this was the pig barn of the Soviet Union. In a small meat-processing factory next to the pigsties, the meat was processed into sausages and hams. Nowadays, the pig farm is part of a Danish company. The meat processing factory is Lithuanian and, with several hundred employees, one of the four major meat processors in this country. " Here in Lithuania people want to eat their own meat", says director Gediminas Tilindis. "Only a small part of our production is exported." Some 400 tonnes of pork are processed on a monthly basis. " Well, still", according to Tilindis. "In the future, people will have to pay much more for meat. Or we have to mix our meat with insects and worms. But the consumer is not ready for that yet. Here, people want to eat 'normally'. No more nonsense. No vegetarian. But in the future, changes are inevitable". The most popular product that leaves the meat-processing factory for the local market is the Frankfurter sausage. The director sees amazement in the eyes of his visitors and quickly adds that it's a unique Lithuanian recipe.

Having previously collaborated on The Sochi Project in the years before the 2014 Winter Olympic Games – a body of work widely heralded as a benchmark for extended journalism – Hornstra and Van Bruggen’s new venture borrows various structural elements from its predecessor. Like the Sochi study, The Europeans will take shape in chapters, unfolding over many years, spanning a huge range of carefully selected territories and unveiling a host of stories that emerge from personal encounters with individuals on the ground.

Kaunas, LITHUANIA, 2019 - Juozas lives alone in a small apartment on the ground floor. His house is littered with clothes, dirty dishes and garbage. In the hallway there is faeces on the floor and on the wall. There is no heating. Juozas lost his mobility due to a leg disorder. Partly because of his alcohol addiction, he no longer has contact with friends and family. A volunteer from Caritas visits every week to see how Juozas is doing and to deliver a food package.

In each region, portraiture combines with landscape images and interior shots, all coupled with journalistic writing. At its core, the project will attempt to cut through the polarising political debates and media narratives that have come to define our understandings of the contemporary European landscape. This is not an investigation into the source of European tensions, but a search for a greater identity that transcends the boundaries of the nation state.

Beyond the more obvious backdrop of sociopolitical upheaval, Hornstra and Van Bruggen’s motivations to tackle this mammoth project are manifold. Perhaps most importantly, they share a feeling that few others seem compelled to attempt a project so grand in scope. Hornstra’s visit to the Rencontres d’Arles left him with the impression that while a number of the many projects he encountered touched upon defining European issues such as migration and borders, very rarely did their authors aspire to zoom out for a broader, slower picture. During the trip, Hornstra felt an urgency to move forward with his idea: “I soon became nervous that if I didn’t launch the project soon, someone else was surely going to do it.”

The pair’s preliminary research has already turned up a number of pertinent questions. Why, for instance, is the tradition of the American road trip etched into both photographic tradition and cultural memory when the same can hardly be said of Europe? Does this denote a lack of continental unity, or perhaps even an apathy towards our European neighbours?

Kaunas, LITHUANIA, 2019 - Birutė doesn't remember how long she has lived alone in the small wooden house in the district Žaliakalnis in Kaunas. She lived there with her mother, who died a long time ago. She worked as an accountant until she retired and was never married. She finds it entirely uninteresting that she has lived under four different regimes: "You always pay money to someone for your wood and for your water. And that's about it."

From Van Bruggen’s perspective, the treatment of Europe as a whole occupies a far more prominent position in literature than it does in the photographic field – an idea which illustrates why the collaborators’ differing challenges, and how the synthesis of their distinct approaches add an important layer to the resulting work. Although well underway, Hornstra asserts that the project’s trajectory is always subject to change: “Right now we’re in a testing period for our method, but we will always adapt based on what we encounter. Ultimately, our goal is a new journalistic approach to Europe: it’s about that experimentation with storytelling.”

In practice, The Europeans sees Hornstra and Van Bruggen travel from place to place, putting the spotlight on peripheral European ‘heartlands’ chosen for their relative underrepresentation (there will be no capital cities named nor popular tourist destinations), as well as their distance “from the daily news cycle”. Another crucial selection criterion for each region is active collaboration; cultural institutions and media outlets able to disseminate the work amongst local audiences.

Kaunas, LITHUANIA, 2019 - The most northern suburb of Šilainiai was built in the 1980s as a typical Soviet microdistrict consisting of high-rise apartment buildings next to high-rise apartment buildings behind high-rise apartment buildings. It is now one of the largest city elderships housing over 70,000 people.

While The Europeans’ first chapter, The Former Capital, is concluded, a second chapter, The Black Country, remains ongoing. Where the former took the makers east, and the latter brought them vaguely west, Hornstra and Van Bruggen are reticent to reveal too many details of each particular place. The images from a given ‘heartland’ will have descriptive captions but their exact location will be elusive. This approach challenges the conventional dichotomies of the local versus the continental, establishing an almost mythical plane in which these narratives can unfold.

Where the staggering ambition of The Europeans is striking, this extends further than the breadth of its subject matter alone. As with The Sochi Project, commitment lies here in Hornstra and Van Bruggen’s intention that their work should transcend the confines of the photography world and have an impact on society at large – beyond the echo chambers of those who already see and think like them – connecting and working closely with countless Europeans along the way.