Where on the face does wisdom live? Is it etched into the furrows and folds laid down after each new experience? Or is it in the eyes and the lessons of lifetimes reflecting back? Or should we look to where laughter is registered? Or is it within the joy of those who discovered its secret? And if wisdom is there, can be it framed in a photograph … captured in a conversation?
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Photographer and filmmaker Andrew Zuckerman thought so, and he made finding that wisdom his own adventure. He called it The Wisdom Project, and it took him and his team (and a whole lot of camera gear) from the English countryside to big cities, from Malibu to South Africa. His mission: interview and photograph some of the world’s most interesting people to discover what has worked well for them in life and what, if given the chance, they would do the same all over again.
Some of his subjects gave him all day. Others, nowhere near that. Zuckerman absorbed a gallery of priceless memories; small personal moments both on and off camera with some great men and women. And the portraits taken, each against the exact same white background, he collected into a book and DVD called, simply, Wisdom.
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Barely 30 years old at the time he set out on this project, Zuckerman decided on a cutoff age: no one younger than 65. “It’s just always been logical to me to ask people who’ve done things that I haven’t done, ‘What that’s all about?’” he says. “These people have lived such extraordinary lives, I couldn’t imagine passing up the opportunity to get to talk to any of them.”
So after posing Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Alan Arkin … chatting with Bill Withers, Desmond Tutu, Madelaine Albright, Andrew Wyeth and Vaclav Havel … and listening to Vanessa Redgrave, Billy Connolly, Chuck Close, Willie Nelson, Esther Mahlangu and dozens more … what do these faces tell him about the meaning of wisdom?
“I think that what it came down to for most of the people in this project was to love what you do,” Zuckerman continued. “As Wyeth said, ‘Love what you do deeply, and if you don’t love what you do, you’re probably not going to be very good at it … work very, very hard at it and to remain curious about the world around you.’”
But there was something else happening during this project. Sure wisdom can easily be passed down to a future generation, but only if there's someone ready to catch it. “Critical in this process of wisdom being passed down is that you also need to take it in; you need to listen to it.” Zuckerman says. “And listening and being curious and wide-eyed in the world I think is what allows us to move forward, progress, evolve and learn and alter our behavior and become more self aware. I think that listening is kind of what it’s all about.”
My Generation’s John Donvan met with Zuckerman to get an inside look into how wisdom is passed on.
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