Virginia Woolf once said, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life”. It’s advice New Zealand photographer Stu Robertson has taken to heart; the ambitious artist is pursuing peace by travelling to every country on the planet to create portraits of 10,000 people, each holding a single white rose – an ancient symbol of peace. The project is called Peace in 10,000 Hands, it has already broken local crowd-funding records, and this weekend it’s coming to the Auckland Museum in the form of a new film. To commemorate the International Day of Peace, the museum will be projecting Stu’s new film, Illuminate: Peace Day, on its northern facade from Friday, September 19 to Sunday, September 21, screening in 15-minute loops from 6-10pm.
Stu kindly set aside some time in his busy schedule to talk to D-Photo about the film, the greater project it comes from, and the many marvellous encounters he has had putting it all together:
D-Photo: Can you give us a little background about yourself and your photography?
Stu Robertson: I’ve been passionate about photography my entire life, my grandfathers both introduced me to the world of photography. One had a darkroom, collected Leica and used Hasselblad gear. The other was more modest with his cameras and worked for Kodak Eastman. I started as the photographer for the school paper with a Pentax K1000 and it grew from there. I have been photographing for 30 years now.
How did the Illuminate: Peace Day film project come about?
The Auckland War Memorial Museum invited me to meet with various team members from different departments. They loved the concept and visual impact of the Peace in 10,000 Hands project and wanted to curate a museum show that reflected the imagery in a local context. The Illuminate series was chosen. It has, until now, always been to commemorate ANZAC Day. Previous film-makers for Illuminate include Sir Peter Jackson and Gaylene Preston.
Who are some of the people featured in the film?
Close to 150 people are featured in the film, in a lot of locations! From All Blacks, Knights and celebs, to shopkeepers, horse whisperers and market gardeners.
The film also includes portraits I have taken of many people around the world and international celebs like Danny Devito, Micky Rourke, Melanie Griffith and portraits of incredible individuals from travels in India and other countries – a diverse depiction of humanity.
What gear were you shooting with?
The stills are taken on the Leica S with 35mm and 70mm lenses and the black-and-white images are taken on the Leica Monochrom with the 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, APO 50mm f/2 and 50mm f/1.4. I love working with the Leica system. I really feel the Monochrom camera captures breathtaking black-and-white images. For the filming we were lucky, Canon NZ lent us their latest C500 with six prime lenses for the film and all the film footage was shot at 50fps, apart from the time-lapse sequences.
Where was it shot?
The film was shot all over the Auckland region, which has been super-sized with the super city extending from Warkworth to Pukekohe. We printed a map and did a lot of driving, criss-crossing Auckland for a couple of weeks, filming and taking stills, capturing the many and varied environs and people that make Auckland the mega cultural city it has become. Some of the shoots were in pre-scouted locations and we also stopped and filmed people as we went along on the journey too.
Was working with film a new challenge for you?
The creative expression and vision of this art project is flowing well and the adaptation to film was a natural step, we had planned for it. Guided by the core principle that I am fixated on capturing ‘an unguarded moment of humanity’, the focus was on that moment, that split second when the person engages with the lens. It is magic.
What do you hope people take away from viewing the film?
We hope to plant a seed of thought that perhaps peace is something we individually have the power to affect for the future.
Art is intimately entwined with the human condition, each of us has the power to create change globally, by starting with ourselves. We are all connected in the human condition and we have a right to peace.
Each of our actions and thoughts has a subtle yet profound ripple effect. We are responsible for, and have the ability to choose, how we influence that ripple.
Imagery creates connection, transfers a feeling, an emotion and courage, a wisdom to make the viewer of the image more resolved, more connected.
You recently raised money to continue the Peace in 10,000 Hands through South Africa and Asia – how far through the project are you now?
Yes, [through] the crowd funding campaign on Boosted, an Arts Foundation platform, and I highly recommend it to any Kiwi artist. The team are amazing! The trip to SA is now planned for the first quarter of 2015 and Asia will follow. To date I have travelled to 12 countries and photographed over 1750 people.
You have photographed a lot of famous people from across the globe, has there been one that was particularly memorable?
This is a difficult question, I little piece of me is in every image I create, as with most photographers. So I would answer by saying it is humbling hanging out any person who opens their heart to you and gives you time. I have spent hours at Demi Moore’s house, splashing in the waves at Malibu with Daryl Hannah, celebrating Ringo Starr’s birthday with him at Studio A at Capitol Records in Hollywood and goofing around with Ricky Gervais in his hotel suite. Always finding a different situation to shoot in, anyone who says yes is a king or a queen in that moment.
The project isn’t just about the stars, you shoot people from all walks of life – how do you decide who you are going to shoot?
This is a great question, thank you! You are right the project is not about celebrity. Celebrity propels the conversation. You only have to open a paper any day of the week to see this. Most of the people I photograph are engaged in their normal life/activities/work and I approach them in the situation I see them in. Chat, join them and then photograph them. The ones you don’t plan are usually the most memorable.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the project so far?
Any struggle or challenge I have pales in comparison to many of the people I photograph. Honestly I am thankful and I feel blessed every day. The journey has had its moments of excitement, for sure; the usual mega storms, earthquakes, car accidents, crazy people, lost luggage, broken down planes, the weird situation of being an overstayer in India and interrogated as to ‘why would you overstay in India?’ It is an honour to be a photographer and have the opportunity to take portraits of people on this awesome planet.
Who is at the top of your ‘must photograph’ list that you haven’t shot yet?
My photographic project is about making the invisible, visible. So for me it is the mothers, the unsung heroes, those challenged through circumstance out of their control. The people creating change in their communities for the next generation. In terms of propelling the conversation, so ‘fame’ as we know it; the Queen, the Pope, Nobel Laureates, Buzz Aldren, Malala, Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Branson, Bono…. Each of us holds the possibility of change firmly in our grasp.
Update: for those who did not manage to get to the Auckland Museum during this year’s Peace Day celebrations (or just want to see it again) Stu’s beautiful Illuminate: Peace Day film can be viewed here.