No matter how different two cultures may be, chances are, their residents share a love of swimming pools. This universal passion for the chlorinated oasis is documented beautifully by Dutch photojournalist Marieke van der Velden, who has shot swimming pools in every country she has visited since 2009.
Since starting the series, van der Velden has photographed swimming pools in Afghanistan, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Jordan, Albania, Benin, Portugal, Malawi, Kenya, Liberia, Iraq, Bangladesh, and more. “I found out that in every place I go, there is an unexpected swimming pool,” she says in her artist statement. These tranquil sites let her look at other cultures through an unexpected, liquid-blue lens while on assignment.
“In every country I like to ask my driver or translator where I can find the most interesting, funny, or crazy pool in the neighborhood," she says. "They always look surprised because they think I want to swim or something.” But when she explains that she’s working on a photo essay, they smile and help her hunt down her subject.
The pools are distinct in their designs, but they’re similar in that they all tell stories—some social, others political. Some nod to a turbulent past and others reveal social inequities. While on an assignment about agriculture in Monrovia, Liberia, van der Velden came across one of the pools of assassinated President Tolbert—now, after 30 years, filled with swampy muck. “You can see that this was a luxury place in the past, but the luxury is completely gone,” she says. “The water was so dirty that it moved and bubbled a bit.” In other cases, her photographs tell the often disregarded stories of a pool’s makers—in Bangladesh, she was stunned to see barefoot construction workers standing on a ledge 10 stories above the ground, putting the finishing touches on a luxurious swimming pool they'd probably never get to swim in. “One mistake and they’d fall,” she writes.
For the most part, van der Velden doesn’t swim in the pools. In many more conservative countries, women are denied the option. “To be honest, I'm not a good swimmer,” she writes. “But the most important reason not to swim is that when I do, I can't take photographs. And I like photography much more than swimming.” She plans to continue photographing pools of the world for the next 30 years.