It’s often said that the simplest ideas are most powerful, and this has certainly been the case for New Zealand photographer Stuart Robertson.
The former business powerhouse is the brain (and eye) behind the Peace in 10,000 Hands photography project which is now on view in Sydney at Leica in the Queen Victoria Building. The series aims to capture a single white rose in 10,000 hands. His subjects are people from as many cultures as Stuart can track down – and has subsequently seen him place the international symbol for peace in the palms of people from Iraq to Afghanistan, including figures as prominent as the Dalai Lama and Demi Moore.
“For me, the most powerful language in the world is the visual language,” explains Stuart. “If you were French and you were German and I spoke English… we might open a book and go through it or [I might] show [you] on an iPad where I live. I’ve always liked being able to communicate visually, to me it’s more powerful than words.”
The road to this photography project has been more than a meander. Stuart’s early forays out of high school saw him tricking his way through international customs during his days working as a somewhat ‘anti-magic’ magician (“If they ask, ‘What’s this?’, I’d say, ‘Pick a card…’”). He’s a serial entrepreneur – in addition to the talent agency he started that saw 3000 people signed to its books, he’s also the founder of marketing and events agency The Orange Group, which has organised events as global as the Rugby and Cricket World Cups – yet Stuart wanted more.
“I got to the point where all I wanted to do was try and make the world a better place and contribute and give back.”
Despite having only dabbled in commercial photography since being accepted into a prestigious New Zealand photography school in his teens (he skipped out to pursue marketing), Stuart was determined to make his idea of capturing “a snapshot of humanity right now” a reality.
He and his wife sold their home, bought a top-quality Leica camera with two lenses, and began the journey in one of the busiest cities on earth.
“I said to my wife, ‘I need to go to New York for six weeks and break the cycle of my life as a businessman and as an entrepreneur and starting and growing new ideas in the business world… as well as learning how to use this damned camera – and talk.’”
That first six weeks turned out to even more testing than Stuart had initially imagined.
“There [were] two [problems]: one, I’m not a photographer. Two, I’m an introvert.
“I had a little Macbook Air with me, I had massive CF cards that went in this camera that the Macbook didn’t read, I wasn’t printing anything, I couldn’t see anything, I didn’t know how to edit an image, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
“So I would go, ‘Oh, she was amazing! Or, ‘Oh my god, that guy was incredible, he had fantastic hair!’ and I’d go back [and view the photos] and go, ‘Oh my god, this is terrible. He was moving… or was I moving? Is everything blurry?’”
While Stuart was learning on the job, Hurricane Sandy hit the US. Instead of leaving, he stayed to dig deeper into the human condition in the face of the catastrophe. With the absence of basic amenities like power, petrol and easy access to water, the connection he felt to those around him during those testing moments of the disaster resulted in a consolidation of his ideas and a deeper confidence in the project – and himself.
“These adverse situations or conditions create camaraderie,” he explains. “What Sandy did, was it broke a bit of the ice.”
Since those early days, Stuart has spent almost four years traversing the globe and capturing 3000 people in 50 countries.
“It’s a real chance for me to give back and try and make change, inspire, invigorate and talk across borders, religion, culture, all of these things, through the images I create.”
Though the waist-up, central-white-rose format of his photos hasn’t changed, there has been one development to Stuart’s process, thanks to a night staying in the home of an intimidating man he was convinced would “kill me in the night” as he slept under his roof in Kurdish Iraq. Where previously Stuart wouldn’t ask those he photographed to pose or act in any certain way, he had to improvise with this particularly “unsettling” subject.
“I was looking through the lens of the camera and I had to keep dropping the camera away because [I was thinking], ‘I just can’t even look at this guy’s eyes’.
“So I said to my [fixer] who was with me, ‘Can you ask him: Don’t move… The only thing I want him to do is to close his eyes.’ The only reason I did this was because I actually couldn’t look at his eyes, it was so scary.
“Then I said… ‘Can you ask him what peace means to him?’ And the warmest smile [happened] – no teeth – but just complete and utter warmth. It was like this black, wet cloak lifted from him. And although nothing changed, everything changed.”
A picture really does tell a thousand words and in this project’s case, one of them is peace.
For more inspiration on how to change the world, check out the 5 Must-Watch TED Talks of 2016.