Thomas Iser, Universal Humanity Photographer
ML: Our paths crossed at the Fairmont Monte Carlo. Talk a little about yourself.
TI: I was born in Metz, France in 1987, and had a quite a turbulent childhood as my brother and I were raised with no rules or boundaries.
Our parents split when I was three, and then life became a rollercoaster. As a teenager I saw my brother fall into drugs and become schizophrenic, my mother suffer from depression and my father quite distant, not by choice but due to circumstances.
My mom’s parents were really caring and loving, and thanks to them I got to see what nature had to offer, the beautiful forests, the rivers – I still dream today about the beauty I saw fishing in those rivers with my grandfather. Without my grandparents, I would have surely taken a wrong path. You can only give what you receive.
ML: You are a self-taught performer, photographer and painter. When did this all begin?
TI: I started skateboarding at a really young age, and also doing graffiti. I was fascinated by the energy and the colours, and because it was something forbidden, almost secret in a way. Plus the adrenaline you get while painting in illegal places is really addictive, a pure shot of life. When you do get caught, you have to use your imagination to get out of trouble as best you can. Street graffiti is a very good education.
Art became my life over time, and nothing matters more to me than expressing inspiring ideas through my work. As humanity faces bigger challenges, the world, more than ever, needs unity. If we want to survive on this planet we have to understand that we are one, all connected, and that we need to work together to face the threats to human existence. Art is something very personal I share with the world and everyday I learn about people and myself.
ML: With your Universal Humanity project, you take thousands of photos of people holding a card over their right eye. Where did the concept come from?
TI: Universal Humanity is basically a portrait of humanity, celebrating diversity in a unique way. It started three years ago, when I painted my body like a broken sculpture and began to roam the streets around the world. My body was painted in black, with breaking lines in gold, colours representing space and light. Each part of my body represented mankind, all different yet building something unique and alive together … humanity.
I was inspired by Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing pottery with melted gold and then accepting the piece is more beautiful and stronger after having been broken and repaired. This art resonates in me, I feel like a Kintsugi object in a way because I knew how to rebuild myself after all the things I experienced with my family.
Then one day, while performing, I decided to take pictures superimposing my famous yellow card, which represents my own eye, over other people’s eyes and so sharing my vision, a vision of a world with no borders and more justice. I guess everyone suffers, so everyone can understand the message.
I have now over 5,000 photos (Universal Humanity Instagram) and I will never stop taking them as long as I live.
ML: When I asked where you were from, you called yourself a “luxury homeless”.
TI: Yes, I said I’m a luxury homeless because I sometimes have the opportunity to be in incredible places like Monaco, and benefit from amazing accommodation thanks to the people I meet, new friends I make, wanting to support me.
Like, for instance, when I was in Dubai last year staying on a friend’s boat for a while, painting my body, painting canvas also … but don’t take this the wrong way, I am just as happy on a sofa and have been in many weird situations (I should write a book!).
I use the term homeless because I don’t have a real address. I prefer to buy plane tickets or invest in art supplies than to pay for rent. So I am always on the move and creating.
Art is a lifestyle and I’m very happy to have more and more people collecting my work, which helps to keep me going. I am building something very specific and once the dots are connected everyone will be able to understand and feel the design.
ML: How do people react to your request to take their photo?
TI: Most people are pretty happy to take part, and they tend to repost their picture on social media, more now than at the beginning of the project. Maybe because they see I have taken a lot of pictures, including celebrities like designer Stefano Gabbana, Victoria’s Secret Angel Sara Sampaio, actor Gad Elmaleh (who is also father to Raphael with former partner Charlotte Casiraghi), X-Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger, rapper Pharrell Williams, American photographer David LaChapelle, Victoria Silvstedt and many others.
When I photograph people it can be very intimate. Holding their hand with the yellow card, I feel their pulse, I look into their eyes. And I have to say, we all share the same sparkle of life, even though for some, unfortunately, life has made it hard to see.
ML: What does travelling teach you about yourself?
TI: I love to travel and see new cultures, landscapes and nature. Travelling is amazing and inspiring, it shows us different possibilities, different systems … but also how to travel within yourself. You can be happy anywhere if you are happy with yourself.
Freedom is the most important thing in my eyes. The freer you are the more your imagination will be able to make new things happen in your life.
ML: Favourite thing to do when passing through Monaco?
TI: Walk around the town, discover its people and take pictures of them.
Article first published March 13, 2018.