Last Friday, I met Todd Bieber, a dude who found a canister of film while skiing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. In a male Amelie sort of twist, he developed the photos and set out to find the photographer by making a Youtube video about the contents. The video was witty, honest, poignant in its recognition that this adventure was much too fantastic to continue. Suddenly, it had racked up a million hits and Bieber was swamped with emails postulating on who the photographer could be. After a few months of fruitless leads, a breakthrough: he received an email from the photographer and immediately booked a ticket to Paris to return the film to the girl who had lost it.
This is the tale that Time magazine described as “YouTube’s greatest adventure,” crafted by the person that ABC News described as “a real life international man of mystery.” Like many others, I was forwarded the first video last winter, and left enchanted by the idea that two strangers could connect through the help of millions of good Samaritans on the internet. But was it really true? After all, Bieber is a director for UCB comedy and a writer for the Onion, and the story just seemed too perfect to be genuine. So I mulled over the ploys that people use to get attention these days, and forgot about the video entirely.
Until I stopped by the Park Slope Food Coop one evening and glanced up at a flyer. Film Night: An Evening of Personal Documentaries. Found: Lost Pictures of New York Blizzard. And there he was, sitting right next to me, wearing a red flannel shirt, dark rimmed glasses, and some scruffy facial hair. The standard hipster uniform. He gave a nervous introduction, and it was clear that he was not used to public speaking, but his face brightened as he told us the rest of his story.
So, they met in Paris. They did not fall in love and get married and live happily forever. Bieber had brought his girlfriend along anyway. The meeting was actually kind of awkward.
After all, how would you feel if your family’s vacation photos had been publicized all over the internet? Unlike the thousands who had replied to Bieber’s plea for information, the photographer, Camille Roche, had been unwittingly dragged into the situation. “I mean, I just flew all the way to Paris to return a film canister,” said Bieber. “That’s weird!”
Upon meeting, Bieber gave Roche a customary European air kiss. Then she noticed the camera, and began walking a few feet ahead. “Maybe the first meeting would have gone better if we didn’t have the cameras rolling,” Bieber explained, “but I wanted to make sure I caught everything on film.” He told her that she would be able to see the footage before it was published and that if she wanted to be removed entirely, he would do it. That seemed to put her at ease, and she relaxed a bit.
Eventually, Roche warmed up to Bieber and they mangled their way to some sort of cross-cultural understanding. “I guess I wasn’t really thinking when I made that video,” Bieber mused. “If someone made a movie with photos of my family and it spread all over the internet, I’d be pretty wary of that guy too.”
Do you still talk to her? “Yes, now I email her once a week,” said Bieber. “And I asked her, what do you want out of this? I felt like I found her film and was the only one who had benefited from it, and I wanted to do something for her.” Roche replied that she would love to come back to New York for a visit, but couldn’t afford it. So Bieber is now trying to organize an exhibition of her photography at a gallery in New York, and raise the funds for her travels.
After the film screening, I stood up and reflexively shuffled my feet. Bieber remained seated, chatting casually with his girlfriend, and they glanced up at me. “Hi,” I stammered, “I just wanted to say that I uh, saw your video last winter, and great job—it’s wonderful to see that the story has a happy ending! Also that it’s a little surreal to see you in person. You’re a YouTube celebrity, you know, it’s like meeting the guy from Evolution of Dance or something!”
Bieber laughed and said, “Wow, that’s really something. I’m not used to thinking of myself as famous.” I asked, “Do you get recognized in public?” He thought for a moment. “Sometimes,” he said, “on the train, around town—but I never really notice. Actually, my girlfriend is the one who usually notices and points it out to me.” She chimed in. “Last week at the farmer’s market, there was a guy who was staring, and then he moved away and I heard him say, ‘That’s the guy from the lost photos video!'” Go figure that a guy who spotted a white film canister in a snow-covered park would be oblivious to the people around him. “Ah well,” I replied, “probably best for your sanity that you don’t pay attention.”
“Well, I’d better get going,” I said suddenly. “Congratulations again.” He waved farewell.