They call it the World's Largest Art Project for Charity, and it's a mission that would make Sesame Street's "official sponsors" proud -- Peace Love & Photography is Ashley Cooper, a Canadian artist and performer, and Filip Cederholm, a Swedish photographer, who are traveling the globe to capture images of thousands of the world's children forming each letter of the alphabet, one country per letter.
Cape Town, South Africa's Blouberg Beach was the site of the first venture, with over 500 local kids arranged to form the "A." Next stop: Namibia's Swakopmund Dunes, and the letter "B." When completed, the twenty-six individual images will be made available for purchase, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to charities helping children in the countries where the photos were taken. Cooper and Cederholm, whose goal is to raise $10 million by December 2016, have even received an endorsement from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who calls their work "a very important project."
In an age where many people equate activism with changing their Facebook profile picture, what makes a couple of first-worlders want to give everything up to live out of their backpacks for four years straight?
In a word, hope.
"We wanted to join the millions of men and women out there trying to affect positive change in the world," says Cooper. "Peace Love & Photography is really about branding a helping and caring lifestyle as being fun and appealing for our youth. We want you to feel positive, inspired and empowered."
The images on their website radiate that sense of inspiration: Dozens of smiling faces, presided over by Cederholm's stunning "A", with Cape Town's famous Tabletop Mountain in the background beneath a dramatic sky. It suggests a world of possibility and positivity. That positivity helps keep the pair going: entirely self-funded and absent the resources of say, Bono, they have to strike a balance as they travel between working on the project and feeding themselves. As Cooper points out though, they are encouraged by the connections they form with the people they meet along the way. "One thing that really resonated with Filip and I when we started out was how many people really want to do good, and how fun it is to work together for a greater purpose. It feels as though no matter what door closes there is always someone there to open another."
Archbishop Tutu helped open one of those doors, by signing several portraits for the duo to assist in their fundraising. Cooper calls meeting the human rights leader a "personal and career milestone" and a validation of what they are trying to accomplish. "To be able to sit and speak with someone of his experience about peace and the meaning of life, you could sense the power of someone who really practices what he preaches. The smile on his face when he saw the "A" meant more than words can say." And yet it was their time with the children from the townships of South Africa who formed that "A" that seems to have had the most lasting impact on the pair. "With so little of their own they gave what is important -- love -- and that's a good life lesson."
There is an unfortunate tendency of late to become cynical about charitable endeavors for Africa -- to think that they are focusing on the wrong issues, creating a culture of dependency, or are increasingly the domain of celebrities looking to assuage guilt or secure a tax write-off. But Ashley Cooper and Filip Cederholm are a reminder of what charity is supposed to mean -- giving of oneself without thought of reward, and spreading that ideal to others. Asked what they hope to gain from this experience for themselves, Cooper's answer is refreshingly altruistic:
We always say 'have fun, do good, live life' -- those are words we hope we can continue living by. We hope that we can help others achieve that philosophy as well. We also hope that we can gain a greater understanding of the world and its people and to continue to give and help as much as we can. We would love for Peace Love & Photography to become a platform where other artists can create socially conscious work and share their experiences.
It would seem that the path to a better world does indeed begin with A, B, C.
For more information on Peace Love & Photography and the ABCharity, please check out their website: www.peaceloveandphotography.tv