Be the change you wish to see in the world, so said Gandhi, and Queenstown-based Kiwi Stu Robertson is taking the words of the most iconic of pacifists at a most literal level. A former entrepreneur, magician and stand-up comic, Stu has, along with his wife Semele, shunned the material world (aside from the necessary tools-of-the-trade), to embark upon a global art project in promotion of world peace.
For the past three years, Stu has travelled the globe photographing people of all colours, creeds and cultures cradling a symbolic single white rose in a journey that has captured the imagination – and attention – of Hollywood celebrities, the Dalai Lama and even NASA. Stu has been the lead on 60 Minutes, has been invited to peace conferences and to give a TED Talk. His goal to capture images of 10,000 souls from every nation on earth also saw him named as one of the top 45 creatives by US conscious culture magazine, Origin, at the close of 2015.
The contrasts have been as extreme as they have been fascinating – from sleeping on park benches to practising yoga, in jeans, with Demi Moore – and he’s not even yet at the halfway mark. I caught up with the photographer on his return from South Africa, where he managed to bag a pair of Nobel peace laureates, in the form of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and FW De Klerk, for the cause.
“I decided that if I’m going to do this project properly, I needed to go everywhere, not simply stick to the likes of London, Tokyo and New York,” he says. “The conversation for peace vastly changes everywhere and how different people respond to art and photography is all part of the challenge.” Stu tells me he arrived in South Africa more fearful than when he journeyed into Iraq: “You hear of the gangs, the shootings, the drugs the craziness. I’m not sure if people hold a magnifying glass over these things, like the guy the girls write about at school, then when you meet them, it’s like, ‘yeah, you’re just John, you play centre-back for the soccer team’, you know? It was certainly like that for me when I was in Cape Town.”
Trying to secure a driver to the city’s shanty towns initially proved a fruitless task, with taxis refusing to drive to where even the police, they said, dared not venture. Finally he made it and the welcome was warm. “I went into homes and just spoke to people,” Stu says. “They have no water, no power, the shacks are just knocked together in this desperate situation.” He made similar visits to similar areas in Johannesburg where he experienced one of the most “beautiful and rewarding” days of his life: “It was a place where white people would not usually go. But we parked up and walked through the markets and people were high-fiving and hugging us. One of the most profound memories is of people selling root vegetables on the side of the road, the kind of people who would probably be looked down upon by many in the west, but some of them could speak three, four, five languages.”
Similarly shocking scenes came from across the Atlantic, resulting in some of Stu’s most striking images, of heavily tattooed gangbangers of South Central LA. I suggest that seeing such souls embracing a symbolic white rose of peace carries more clout than, say, a celebrity or monk. “Witnessing some of these people standing for peace with a flower does stop you in your tracks,” says Stu, “but I don’t pick those people for that reason.” It’s a global project, he emphasises, and no-one should be omitted: “It’s a slice of humanity, a representation of society, of mankind, as it stands, right now, so that the collections can be looked back upon in a hundred years, two hundred years, a thousand years – we’re in talks with NASA about sending a time capsule into space.”
Stu makes it clear that he in no way cues his subjects as to how they should pose: “I don’t read them any inspirational lines of verse, or ask them to express any emotion whatsoever. Ricky Gervais, for instance, was being his usual hilarious self in his hotel room, as was Danny DeVito, but something happens when you place this ancient symbol in their hands. It’s like this shroud falls over them and they just ‘know’. That’s what I’m trying to show in the images, and it often comes across more powerfully in the ones you don’t expect.”
As honoured as he is that some of the world’s wealthiest and most famous stars have lent their faces and given their time to the project (“as they are obviously and understandably very picky about what they put their names to”), Stu says, on a personal level, the most meaningful of engagements tend to be with the world’s most poor. He uses his trip along the Syrian border, through Turkey and Iraq, as an example. “Every day is hard for these people,” says Stu, “managing their land, they’re constantly having to work for everything, and they have so little. Yet you turn up with two cartons of apple juice and say, ‘this is a gift’, and they open them then insist that you drink them. They so often seem to be the happiest people I meet. I mean, in the west everyone moans about what they don’t have. We can learn so much from each other. The rewarding situations, the most deeply enriching of situations, the ones that make you well-up when you think about them in bed at night, are the ones where you see a child laughing and joyful in an environment where you would think that they should not be. One of the most important things I’ve learned during my travels is to look to the children to judge a society and see how happy they are.”
It must often be difficult to leave?
“One of the hardest things about this project is having to say goodbye. It’s interesting because I’m not usually too emotional when it comes to people, I’m not big on socialising. There are some incredible people doing incredible things out there that you will never hear about, won’t read about in the newspapers, but they are changing lives every single day.”
People often think about peace as simply ending violence, but it’s a lot more complex than that?
“Different people’s concept of peace are so different. Trying to explain peace in Iraq, or certain parts of India, is difficult in a western construct. Imagine living in a desert with no power, little shelter and no access to any medical care or water. Some people thought that if I wanted peace I should have brought guns. The purpose of this project is not to bring about world peace, but to start a conversation. The greatest feeling that comes through what most people say is that peace comes from within. It’s a search that begins within and then spreads. People can feel it. I’ve spoken to over two-and-a-half thousand people over three years and everyone distils into this.”
And what does it all mean to you?
“For me all of humanity is connected as a collective conscience. Pretty much everything on the periodic table is created through the death of a star. We’re all on the same journey but speaking a different language. I’m not interested in being involved with anything in my life any more that doesn’t make the world better. So I came up with this concept, and in my wildest dreams the Dalai Lama was number one on the list, and I never for a nano-second expected the chance to photograph any of these amazing people.”
Stu and Semele fund the project through the sale of the artworks which are being curated into some significant art collections around the world. Their ultimate aim is to establish a global charity in the name of Peace in 10,000 Hands. They have started this charitable journey by donating artworks to various charities who then sell them for the highest sums possible with no money ever passing through Stu and Semele’s hands (“I don’t like money, I’d rather work for a bag of beans and a sack of potatoes”).
“When we have the funds within the next couple of years from the large exhibitions overseas we will set up a global board to appropriate them and choose who gets what,” says Stu. “We wish to to create a funding mechanism for children’s health, education and safety. If children are raised in a safe environment, are educated and have access to healthcare, then there is a greater chance of happiness in their lives and everyone who is connected to them. I don’t want it to be about colour or religion or geography or about this white guy from New Zealand giving handouts to people. I want it to be far more transparent and robust than that.”
The journey of a thousand miles (or, for this purpose, 10,000 Hands), so goes the saying, begins with a single step. Deciding to throw himself in at the deep end, Stu took his first one in New York, arriving with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment and two white silk roses, one of which he lost on the first day in the city. Plagued with shyness and self-doubt, Stu approached his first subject on the street and she said ‘no’. The omens were not looking good. Days later, Hurricane Sandy hit, and, ironically, the world’s greatest city was plunged into a state of desperation comparable, if only for a relatively short time, to many of the areas which Stu would later visit. “The streets and tunnels were flooded and people were dying. We were stranded,” he says. “The military were driving through pushing crates of water from the back of their Hummers. It was all a bit zombie apocalyptic. There was no power, it was pitch black with howling winds and there was no petrol. People got pissy within four days. There were muggings and shootings. Humanity changed in an instant. So imagine growing up in that constant state of distress. It becomes part of you out of your fabric. Here, if someone drops a glass in a bar there may be whistles and cheers, but in another country it may be misconstrued as a gunshot and people hit the ground.”
With such a symbolic start to the art project, I ask Stu if he has planned a symbolic end. “It’s funny, but when I first started, I didn’t photograph people’s faces,” he says. “I believe our hands express our humanity like nothing else, and people are fascinated by those first photographs when they’re on display in the galleries. Old people’s hands especially are quite wonderful. It was only when I got to the first celebrity situation, I thought, ‘no-one’s going to believe it’. I also didn’t use my own name initially, I thought it shroud be about the project, not the individual, but was advised otherwise. A lot people think the last picture should be of me. I don’t know. All’s I do know is as soon as the last photo is taken, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done.”
There’s also a part of Stu, I suspect, that doesn’t want this beautiful journey to end. And I can’t say that I blame him.