Written by John Williams
Photography by Stuart Robertson
The idea is beautifully simple. Take a single, white rose — an ancient and universal symbol of peace — and travel around the globe, photographing it in the hands of 10,000 people from all creeds and all walks of life. This was Stuart Robertson’s vision for his ambitious global art project, now almost a decade in the making, which recently found its first permanent home in a gallery space in Freeman’s Bay.
I’m meeting Stuart at the gallery just before he jumps on a plane back down to his native Queenstown, ahead of moving to Los Angeles to embark on the next stage of his venture. This all sounds very glam and jet-set, but he’s not that sort of guy, and Peace in 10,000 Hands is certainly not intended to be that sort of project.
With 10,000 Hands, Stuart says he came at it from a different angle — “It’s not what you’d call a classic approach. I had an idea and took a different route… we’re Kiwis, and that’s what we do. From the get-go, it was always 10,000 hands — never anything less — with the bold goal of raising $100 million to invest in children’s charities, specifically focussed on health and education in areas of the world that need it — and in art centres and communities that need a heart.”
“I’m not a photographer,” he says, bluntly, ‘but the fear of failure has killed more ideas than failure ever has’. We all have ideas, but few of us act on them — and that’s the biggest failure. So I had this idea, I bought a camera, I unboxed it in New Zealand, left the instructions here and went to New York with a silk rose and the will to succeed.”
Stu’s Hollywood moment
The next big break for Stuart and the project came in Los Angeles. How it evolved reads like a script out of a Hollywood movie…
“I won’t name names, but I was invited to lunch at The Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset to meet these two producers, who thought the idea [of 10,000 Hands] was great. So, I turn up, someone is playing the piano, and it’s all very la-di-da. I’m sitting there waiting for these guys, I ring them, but I don’t hear from them. So, I have a salad and a glass of water and wait for them to turn up. I’m there for about an hour, then I feel a tap on my shoulder. Turns out they’d been there the whole time, just a few tables behind me. They knew I was there but had left me hanging. I thought, bugger you, basically, but they asked me to join them.
“They said that they liked the idea, but there was no proof of concept. ‘If it was that amazing, you’d photograph the Dalai Lama,’ one of them said. And I said, well I am going to photograph the Dalai Lama; to which they replied, when? I said, next February. They said, OK, so when you have that photograph, you give us a call — and with that, they walked off. I thought, right, so now I’ve got to photograph the Dalia Lama by next February.”
True to his word, and after speaking to the Executive Director of the Dalai Lama Foundation in America, who loved the idea, Robertson photographed the Dalai Lama that following February. And this was without a website, without business cards, with nothing — just the power of the idea.
So, there it was again — the proof of concept Hollywood had demanded. From there came the EMMY, BAFTA, Grammy, Academy, and Golden Globe winners, Victoria Cross recipients, Nobel Laureates, world leaders, heads of state, and rock stars.
No stopping him now
It had always been one of Stuart’s goals for the project to capture images of famous people holding the rose. But before he’d shot Demi Moore, Danny DeVito, Emily Blunt, or Ringo Starr, or any of the myriad of other A-listers he has since captured, he’d gone straight to the top of his list: His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
“Right at the very beginning of the journey, we were spitballing some ideas of who we’d like to get involved — because if you want a decent political conversation around different ideologies around the world, you have to start with world leaders and the disparate nature of their belief system and what drives them. And the highest person on land for peace in that conversation is the Dalai Lama, so he was at the top of the list.”
However, this is not solely a project about capturing celebrity or notoriety, he says. At the other end of the human spectrum, Robertson has travelled to some of the most remote and unknown parts of the planet to capture people holding the rose.
In Papa New Guinea, he found himself sitting in a little dinghy, powered an outboard and piloted by a couple of locals in shorts and jandals, travelling across the Bismarck Sea…
“You don’t see the Dalai Lama holding a pen or a glass of water, because a lot of the world doesn’t have access to even these simple things. That’s why they first said to me, you’ll never get him to hold the rose.”
“When you leave Wewak, you travel 110km, straight out, hoping you’re going to hit one of these six tiny islands in the middle of the Bismarck Sea — and when you get there, you turn up in a place where they live like they did 20,000 years ago.
“Every morning, they [the locals] go out onto the reef in their canoes and catch mackerel and tuna. They bring back their catch, grind up coconut, cook the fish in the coconut with root vegetables and curry leaves, and you literally have the most insane meal of your life, under a coconut tree, on the beach, with nothing in front of you, with no technology, no pots or pans or even plates. It’s an incredible way to live.”
When asked who is the most memorable person he’s shot out of the 3,500 people so far, he is quick and clear with his answer… Whero O Te Rangi Bailey, a Maori elder (kuia), who lived in the small settlement of Parihaka, under the shadow of Mt Taranaki.
“She was a master weaver. She’s passed now,” he says with sadness. “It took three days to convince her to take the picture. Eventually, she came around. For the background, she took me to this flax — a most amazing looking flax bush — but she said, pointing with her walking stick, not this one, that one. So we go over to this other bush, and there are vines wrapped around it, suffocating it, with dead flax leaves that needed to be removed and new shoots coming through. She then used this flax bush and its states as an analogy for humanity and peace. It was really powerful.”
As far as individual moments go, getting blessed by the Dalai Lama is right up there for Stuart, as was the afternoon spent with Demi Moore in her kitchen making a pear and goat feta salad. However, he is again insistent that this is not a project about capturing celebrity… “It’s about making the invisible visible and getting under the skin of the world. Everyone has a conversation to have around peace, even if they don’t fucking believe in peace. Quote.”
Stuart is fairly self-effacing about his achievements so far and doesn’t shout too much about his success. “Like most Kiwis, we do our thing quietly — it’s just the way we do things. If a Kiwi owns a Ferrari, it tends to come out on a Sunday for a quiet drive. Whereas in LA, you’ve got three, and you come out tooting and waving and giving everyone high fives.”
He tells me that he actually started the project under a pseudonym Paton Jackson. It was only following a meeting with the Managing Director of Leica in Singapore on a stopover back from India that he was persuaded to put his own name to the project. “When I showed him the RAW images I’d just shot in India, he said with tears in his eyes, this is the most insane idea I’ve seen, but I must tell you that people follow people; they don’t generally follow ideas.”
Just Stuart and his camera
Stuart travels light — just the camera, a monopod, and a small box containing the silk rose. No lights or reflectors, or additional lenses, or assistant. He admits that the monopod is there as much for protection in some of the places he ends up shooting as it is for steadying the camera in low-light conditions.
Although he confesses that he has found himself in life-threatening situations, Stuart is reluctant to talk about them because he doesn’t want people to think that he deliberately puts himself in danger or that he’s some kind of hero, armed only with a camera and a rose. “I don’t want that to distract from the idea and the topic of conversation,” he says. “The other thing is that people who are in distressed situations in disparate parts of the world will do what they need to do. I don’t blame those people.”
Covid has all but stopped him from travelling, but it hasn’t stopped the project. He has put together a book during the past year, opened his new gallery in Freeman’s Bay, and launched a website. The pandemic has also given him the opportunity for road trips here in Aotearoa, staying on the side of the road and enjoying this country whilst it’s quiet — and very clean, he adds.
“This is a project by Kiwis for the world, so we are taking it to the world from here. This will always be its home. The lens we put over the project is that it comes from
New Zealand, from a Kiwi heart.”
Stuart’s artwork for Peace in 10,000 Hands can be viewed online at www.g33.co.nz, or in person at Gallery 33, 33 Ireland Street, Freeman’s Bay. Gallery manager Sally Aberhart says that the space is also open to hosting evenings for groups of 5-30 people — and even when Stuart’s travelling, they will have pre-recorded pieces from him, and when possible, set up live links via Zoom.