The 100 — five years on (part one).

This is a short story about how giving people total and utter freedom with a simple brief can create wonderful things, an experiment in slow creativity, and how the internet isn’t really about digital.

About six years ago, whilst I was freelancing, I was in the habit of coming up with a new side-project each year. It was usually during the Christmas holidays, as a week or so off work usually created some mad-cap ideas which then had the space to be hacked out and put online before returning to work.

In 2012, this project was The 100:

The 100 is a year-long collaborative photography project.
Over the course of 2012, we’re giving 100 disposable cameras to 100 people aged between 1 and 100, inviting each of them to capture one week in their life.
Through the site, we’ll share the images and build up a picture of 100 different lives.

It ran for twelve months as planned, and we not only managed to capture 100 weeks of people aged from 1–100, we also discovered a ‘zero’ year old and a 101 year old.

The project has sat dormant since 2013, after I wrapped it up, but a few weeks ago, I received an email:

Hi, Matthew.
Some years ago I participated in your ‘The 100’ project. I would like to talk to you a little bit about that and how important that was to me. Just let me know if you received this email. Thanks, Daniela Lima.

Daniela went on to write a little more after I’d let her know the email on the project was still active.

Here’s what she wrote:

Sorry it took so long for me to write you this e-mail, but that’s what I wanted you to know:
I’m Daniela Cenci Lima. I have sent you an e-mail some years ago and my grandfather, João Cenci, was selected to be the 82th.
Two months ago, he passed away while he was sleeping. He was 86. But the reason I’m sending you this message is to tell you what happened to us since you chose him to be part of your project.
He was a very simple man. He was so humble, kind and hard working. And he loved his family so much.
João Cenci, #82
The idea of receiving the camera and taking pictures of his daily life really amused him. He never really understood what was the internet nor how did it work. All he knew was that he would ‘be on the internet’ and people all over the world would be able see him there. And you have absolutely no idea how proud he was for that, having come from such a small village in the countryside.
Since the day I made him all the questions so that I could send you the answers, something changed between us. We were all gathered in my grandparents house — me, my grandparents, their children, my cousin, my brother -, having a family lunch and we spent hours talking about our history. I knew already what they had been through to get to the ‘big’ city, but it was very touching to see them talking about that, how much they suffered with poverty and all the work and, most of all, how proud they were about what they achieved and could offer to their family.
Also, he just loved taking the photos. He would choose a place or something he liked to be with him. One day, having dinner, he had already had many glasses of wine and got all the bottles together and took his glasses off to look ‘nicer’. He pretended to be making a key so that it was more interesting. I’ll soon send you the description of the photos.
João’s The 100 page, printed and framed.
When you published the photos, he printed the internet page with his name and put that in his shoe store’s wall so that everyone could see. He also made hundreds of ‘visiting cards’ with his name and the website to give it to his customers.
Your project brought us closer, it built something so special between us. He was so happy to think that his life was worth capturing and being on an international project. And I was so grateful to know him better and the things he had lived and learnt from a time when not even my mother was born.
Anyway, even though I don’t know what happened to the project, I just think you should know how meaningful it was for me and for my grandfather. Thank you so much.

Daniela’s note moved me — as with The Disposable Memory Project, The 100 had a number of unexpected and extremely human stories created within its construct. I would have never been able to plan for or encourage any of these sorts of responses, nor was it my intention — I just wanted to ‘see what might happen’ if I sent out a handful of cameras to pseudo-random people.

The note from Daniela came to me at an interesting time — at a crossroads in life, where I’m asking questions and making decisions about what the next phase of my work and career should be, and has reminded me how important these sorts of projects and emails are to me, and how this sort of project is not the response to a brief from a client, or something with huge ROI or metrics or reach or engagement — its something which is meaningful to a small group of people who were involved, and that is the sort of what which is meaningful to me.

I had planned on dusting off The 100, five years on, and recontacting each of the participants to ask two simple question: “What has changed in the past five years, and what do you think will happen in the next?”

Daniela’s email has story has persuaded me that I absolutely must do that.