Photographer Jac de Villiers spoke to influential people who have shaped our world view. They shared their message of leadership and humanity.

Portraiture is a complex affair, where the photographer shares an intimate but brief relationship with a person, often a stranger. Usually, I have a rough mental image of the result I am looking for. I like to create a narrative around my subject: although the staging can be controlled, the communication can be unpredictable, often collaborative, always challenging – the challenge to tell a story.

Over a period of three months, I travelled to nine countries to photograph eminent leaders for the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust. Each person was asked to share their experience and insights in the form of a message that they would leave behind for humanity. The portraits and messages culminated in an exhibition called Hands That Shape Humanity.  

Queen Noor Al-Hussein of Jordan

Of Arab-American decent the queen seems to embody the best qualities of these two worlds in her graceful and confident manner in front of my camera. As a human rights campaigner and environmentalist, she works tirelessly to improve the lives of people. The queen is inspired by Henri Matisse, who said: “Find joy in the sky, in the trees, in the flowers.” She believes that by discovering the blessings in our lives, infinite possibility exists in all of us.

Shimon Peres

Peres is the elder statesman of Middle Eastern politics and, as such, a great survivor. Historical photographs line the walls of his office in Tel Aviv, bearing witness to his great leadership role spanning over half a century, culminating in 1994 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Peres believes that the highest degree of wisdom is moral consideration. “Always look back with forgiveness. Always look ahead with hope. And when you look aside, do it with love.”

Carlos Santana

I meet the musician and songwriter at his recording studio in San Francisco. He is courteous and unassuming and his talk is a kind of a pop-philosophical monologue. Santana believes the world needs moral rejuvenation. “If you put your toe in the ocean, it doesn’t  matter if it’s the Pacific or the Atlantic, there’s really only one sea. If you asked God his religion, what’s he gonna say?” Santana believes that “We are all as important as Jesus Christ.”

Jane Campion

One of the world’s outstanding woman film directors, she has won an Academy Award, a Palme d’Or and a Silver Lion for her work. Campion is engaging and imaginative – it’s a joy to photograph her as she gives her all. She says: “You have to find your own way to yourself. It’s very universal. It’s being in my body. Being relaxed. Being sensitive.”

Jei Jinsheng

A Chinese human rights activist, Jingsheng has suffered enormous hardship for his political ideals, having spent ten years of a fifteen-year prison sentence in solitary confinement. It was a humbling experience for me to create his portrait, his face showing no remorse or self-pity, only joy at being alive.

We somehow communicated without using words, as we could not understand each other’s language. His message is a personal one relating to his political experience – he believes that one should not imitate the chameleon and adapt to circumstances. Although this is a good tactic for surviving, it is bad for the course of the world. Adhering to one’s principles can avoid unexpected catastrophes.

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