The Man Putting Peace in the World's Hands

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In 2012, Stuart Robertson’s wife Semele dropped him off at the airport, possibly with a degree of trepidation – Robertson was embarking on an audacious mission. The New Zealander had purchased a Leica camera (which he didn’t really know how to use), two white silk roses and a ticket to New York City, with the intention of taking 10,000 images of humanity to spark a conversation about peace.

Four years on, he’s got 3000 in the bag and shows no sign of slowing down. And he knows how to wield that camera. The project is called Peace in 10,000 Hands and Robertson’s white rose – he lost the other on his first, fruitless day in New York – has been in the hands of murderers, widows, Hollywood stars and religious leaders.

Peace in 10,000 Hands

Stuart Robertson. Image supplied.

Why 10,000? “Because it’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s such a stupid number, isn’t it? But the thing is, I’m trying to capture a snapshot of humanity right now – every colour, every country, every culture, every religion – everybody.”

And the white rose? “The symbol of the white rose dates back 30,000 years and all modern roses come from the white rose. Everywhere that’s recorded it has recorded it as a symbol of peace and pure love,” he explains. 

Peace in 10,000 Hands

Pari by Stuart Robertson

The idea – so simple, so earnest – came to Robertson as a “circuit-breaker” after a long and successful career. Before reinventing himself as a photographer/peace emissary, he was an entrepreneur in the creative industries. His laser focus has been honed over many years; Robertson has been working since he was an eight-year-old. “Now, my only focus is this project,” he says.

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In order to capture a true snapshot of humanity right now, Robertson has been to places most of us haven’t: impoverished Cité Soleil in Haiti, Soweto, slums in India, Mosul in Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Turkey, the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

“It’s about making the invisible visible – getting under the skin of the world. If I just went to Sydney, Tokyo and London, it wouldn’t resonate with people the way it does,” he says.

Peace in 10,000 Hands

Danny DeVito by Stuart Robertson

And his subjects are even more diverse.

“I find people by walking around, bumping into them, the strangest ways. The Dalai Lama introduced me to Jamie Lee Curtis, who is also a Leica photographer. She introduced me to Ricky Gervais – you get passed on from person to person,” says Robertson.

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To find the people he’s looking for, he’s got himself in some sticky situations – on some occasions literally (a hot yoga class with Demi Moore), while on others metaphorically (being chased by machete-wielding locals in the slums of Cape Town). The same rose has been in the hands of gang members, the Dalai Lama, grieving mothers, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Daryl Hannah.

“It’s not my job to judge and I don’t mediate. For me it’s about including everybody,” he says. Each time Robertson kneels in front of a subject and focuses his camera, his aim is to create a work of art, not just a moment in time. He doesn’t use a tripod or lights and everyone he photographs is asked the same simple questions: who are you and what does peace mean to you?

Peace in 10,000 Hands

Ricky Gervais by Stuart Robertson

Robertson never knows how his subjects will respond. Some people burst into tears when they hold the rose, some people need a moment after the shoot and some stay in touch with him afterwards.

Before he began, one of Robertson’s biggest worries was how to approach his subjects, people on the street going about their daily lives. That first day in New York ended with Robertson feeling like a failure. He hadn’t managed to convince one person to pose with the white rose and the self-confessed introvert was emotionally exhausted.

Now, he’s got used to being rejected. “It doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter,” he says. Shortly after that inauspicious first day, Robertson snapped his very first image, taken in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in New York, of a woman with chipped nail polish holding the white rose. Called Hurricane, it hangs about his desk in his home in Queenstown.

Peace in 10,000 Hands

Stick-collector by Stuart Robertson

“It’s just my wife and I. We do everything – take the photos, edit the photos, curate the show, handle all the online stuff,” he says. “We don’t benefit a dollar out of the project – all the money goes to the project. The goal is to raise $100 million for children’s charities.”

Stuart Robertson’s portraits can be seen hanging in the new Leica store at Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building and at Peace in 10,000 Hands. Stay up to date with his travels on Facebook

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