Happiness. Love. Hardship. These words all evoke specific images and memories in my mind, along with an idealized notion of what each one means in general. This duality is what French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand set out to prove 5 years ago for his project entitled 6 Milliards D’Autres, also known as 6 Billion Others. The world—renowned photographer’s intent was to “draw a portrait of contemporary mankind” that would illustrate both our uniqueness and commonality. He wanted to give viewers a new outlook on humanity by giving us insight into the lives of people from very different backgrounds. Six film directors and multiple translators joined Yann Arthus-Bertrand in his mission, traveling to 65 countries in every continent to interview a total of six thousand people. The team made a conscious effort to achieve a wide demography by including the China and India as well as less populated ones, such as Slovakia and Bosnia. The interviews consisted of questions on universal themes such as life goals, family, and those mentioned above. Some questions produced such personal responses that many people said they had never revealed them to anyone before being interviewed. After collecting 4,500 hours of footage, the team created films that were about 30 minute long of many interview clips for every theme. The project culminated in a fascinating exhibit in Paris, which I witnessed at the Grand Palais with Ali last week.
Just beyond the entrance of the exhibit, there were three enormous screens that each displayed footage of two people as they answered interview questions. The screens showed close-ups of only their faces in front of plain backgrounds. The emphasis on their facial expressions set the stage for the intimate nature of the short films that we were about to see. The films were shown inside colorful, rounded tents on either side of the huge outdoor area surrounded by the walls of the Grand Palais. Behind the large screens at the entrance, there was a circular covered structure that showed hundreds of faces in all 360 degrees on the inside. This visual representation of the individuals who were interviewed demonstrated the diversity of languages and nationalities that Yann Arthus-Bertrand and the other filmmakers were able to find for the project. Once I had observed many portraits of people that were involved, I decided to venture into one of the mysterious looking tents that were scattered throughout the room.
Inside each tent, there was a series of interview clips being played in a dark room. The tents were organized by theme based on the types of questions that were asked. I think the tent that influenced me the most was épreuves, or tests. The stories were so deeply moving and eye opening that I emerged from the tent with completely new perspectives on life that I will never forget. A Rwandan girl has been tortured and permanently wounded by the militia. Almost every part of her body aches with pain at night when she is trying to fall asleep. I listened to a Jewish man recount the story of how he lost nearly all of his family members during the Holocaust. He said that they were thrown into the line to die in the gas chambers, as if they were “insects.” This story, along with others about people whose family members have been killed or have mistreat them, made me feel immensely grateful that I have a family that cares about me. This is something that I often take for granted, so hearing about who have lost people who are close to them was very emotional for me.
I realized throughout the course of my stay at the exhibit that many people have such a positive attitude on life despite all sorts of difficult obstacles. An elderly French woman was the only survivor of a plane crash. She was bedridden for nearly a year and was “the living dead” for two more years. She said that now she has a completely new appreciation for life, and she described her happiness as being transient but worth striving for. She said it is these intense, searing moments that we look forward to and that keep us going. I found that this description of happiness applied to many other people who also had difficult lives but shared a similar outlook. A man from Equador said that he does not want to complain about poverty, because he can still feels happy at times and everybody has their own struggles. Some people were content with the most simple things, like water that was safe to drink. A Romanian woman was happy when her peach trees would grow enough for her to make a living.
I was really taken aback by the extreme differences that people have experienced regarding love and faithfulness. A Chinese man said that he had a mistress, so his wife would just go out when his mistress would come and it was no problem. On the exact other end of the spectrum, an Islam man from Algeria said that if your wife cheats on you, she can be killed under law. People have very different experiences with love as well. One woman from Romania said that she slept outside under 7 coats until she got married. She described it as an escape, and admitted that she did not love her husband at all. Other people who know what love is like said that it was a feeling that is too hard to explain. I emerged from this exhibit with a whole new perspective on many parts of my life, and the words of the people have been in my head ever since.