(Photo: Global People Project)
On the streets of a small town in Indiana, a homeless man pondered the question, 'what does love mean to you?' as the camera rolled.
"Wanting the best, doing the best for someone else," he replied.
This was just one of the many answers that Helen Wright and Hugh Lewis had heard over the past few months. They were travelling around the world interviewing people from all walks of life, for the Global People Project - a non-profit organisation that they're both directors of. The project was set up to advance our understanding of one another, and in Helen's words, to 'engage, empower and connect people in today's globalised world'.
I came across Helen and Hugh at a TEDxBrixton talk last month. They were presenting some video clips from their travels, a collection of narratives and findings born from seemingly simple answers. The work was beautiful, but why travel lands afar and set up such a big operation to film snippets with strangers?
"We live in a world of human experience more intertwined than ever before. Our lives are shaped by what's happening in other parts of the world. We wanted to use our skills as documentary filmmakers and digital creatives to respond to this global time we live in," Helen explains.
They decided to conduct interviews, asking the same 20 questions to a diverse cross-section of people across six continents. Willing volunteers shared what made them happy and angry, what they thought about death, community, things that made them laugh, among other topics.
"We were interested to find out how different people respond to the same questions. Do the same things make people scared in London as in New York or Shanghai? What do different people all over the world hope for the future? We wanted to discover what separates us and what unites us. These questions are relevant to everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from."
Not just relevant, but according to one interviewee, 'questions you know the answers to but are never asked.' From Mangesh, a 'slum-dog' entrepreneur in Mumbai, to an artist in China, a girl in the Amazon jungle to Patak, a Kalahari bushman who's no longer to free to live on the parklands where his ancestors roamed, Helen and Hugh met countless characters, and racked up tens of thousands of answers, spanning 35 languages.
"In Laos, we were waiting to meet someone in a café, and asked the young barista there if he'd like to be involved. He was hesitant when he was asked, perhaps he felt he would get in trouble for not focusing on his job. With reassurance from his colleagues, he took off his serving coat and sat down before the camera. When asked about love he said, 'To me love is like candlelight. When we light the candle, wax drips. Whenever I have love, I am happy for a short time because I know it will not last forever. One day it will go, it is not permanent, it's made up. That is why it is like candlelight.' We were struck by this poetic answer from the young man behind the coffee counter," Helen recalls.
The story that moved me most was one Helen and Hugh told on stage in Brixton. They described their trip to Rwanda, where they interviewed a man who'd gone to prison for his part in the genocide. There was a big language barrier between them, so their guide offered to interview him for them. Once the interview had finished, Helen and Hugh asked the guide about his experience of the genocide. He told them that he was only young at the time, but it had killed both of his parents. Incredibly, as Helen pointed out, they had witnessed a genocide survivor sharing something of a cathartic exchange with a perpetrator, who'd been part of the reason his parents had died.
Hearing these incredible stories from across the globe, has been down, in part, to technology. Helen explains that ten years ago, pre-producing the footage on location, and creating a responsive production like this wouldn't have been possible.
"We had the ability to reach out and connect with producers all around the planet to collaborate on a truly global project using tools like Skype," she says. "The ever increasing reach of mobile communications has meant that we're able to create and manage a global production that extends beyond world cities and even Internet connectivity. For example, we connected with producers in the Amazon in a similar way to those living more locally."
Helen and Hugh's long term aim is to develop their web technology so they can present all the answers they received in a way that allows people to interact and participate themselves, including a 'thought map', which allows you to see what people from different parts of the world have in common based on their answers, and a 'thoughtscape exhibition' where photography, moving image and sound meet. Some of the footage can be found on their website, along with information about the project outreach programmes and educational partnerships.
Learning about this project really called into question my understanding of people around the world, and if we're really made of the same fibres, living the same lives somehow. I've also been thinking about my answers to the questions Helen and Hugh asked, and some have surprised me. I often feel that work like this doesn't reap enough plaudits or get enough credit for the important role that it plays. These questions and answers can truly change our perceptions of others, and ourselves; a vital part of our development as people and societies, moving forward together.