Do you remember the “Where’s Waldo” books? The ones with those elaborate illustrations you’d pore over in search of the eponymous, lanky little man with the red-and-white striped shirt and matching cap? You probably do. In my childhood experience, at least, those books were as ubiquitous as toy cars and peanut-butter sandwiches.
But to be honest, I hadn’t thought about them in years. As I grew older, my life filled with meetings and deadlines, leaving little room for such childish endeavors as search-and-find picture books. Then, one day, I stumbled upon a certain Instagram account, and the sight of the man in the unmistakable outfit brought back a flood of childhood memories. I remembered, among other things, the epiphanic clarity that followed every triumphant Waldo discovery. After minutes — and sometimes hours — of failing to spot him, I would catch the corner of his shirt, or the little ball of fluff atop his cap, and suddenly, he would appear as the mainstay of the entire picture. I’d think, How did I miss him before?
The @wallyfound account is run by Rui Souza Neto, a Brazilian photographer who travels from country to country dressed as Waldo, staging playful shots in front of some of the world’s most stunning landmarks. I caught up with him to discuss the inspiration for his project, and I was most notably struck by his spirit of positivity. Rui’s passion for travel and photography is born not out of a hunger for fame or followers, but from a genuine desire to be kind, and to inspire hope and happiness in the audience he’s fortunate enough to reach.
As he walked me through his experiences, he would casually touch upon an abundance of truths that, though universal, were incredibly simple and incredibly obvious. They were truths that, once I heard them, made me wonder, How did I miss that before?
Where are you from originally?
I am from a land where the soil is fertile, the people are as happy as characters in a Disney musical, and football is like a religion. The sky is always blue and the moon is always bright and full. Okay, that’s not entirely true — not everyone likes football.
I’m from a small town in the countryside of Brazil. Not a lot happens there, but the people are very friendly — whether you’re out for a walk or stuck in a crowded place with no air conditioning, smiles will be exchanged. Brazilians are very welcome people, so if you’re visiting without a guide, we’ve got your back.
When did you first start traveling?
Once upon a time, when I was living in London, I found out that train companies would sell cheaper tickets during certain times of the year. It was perfect because I was able to explore most of the United Kingdom on the weekends without breaking the bank. I learned about the historic spots of Dorset, experienced the greatness of the English coast, and saw the charms of little towns like Oxford and York. It was then that I started my project, while exploring and connecting with my surroundings and seeing absurdly interesting places.
I have had the urge to travel for my entire life, and I am sure people who are not interested in it simply haven’t had the chance to realize what an important part of life travel is. It fundamentally transforms us. It gives us opportunities to learn about cultural diversity, expand our knowledge of world cuisine, and encounter people we would never meet otherwise. We learn about ourselves and get out of our comfort zone as we learn to adapt in a different world. We heal. We transform. And we are never the same after traveling. Because once we expand our minds, it’s impossible for us to fit it into the same little boxes.
When did you first get the idea for the @wallyfound account?
The idea for @wallyfound came when I decided to improve my skills in photography — a passion I have had for a long time — and meet like-minded people. I had recently moved to England, and between the cultural shock and the difficulty I had meeting people in such a huge capital, I found myself pretty friendless. At that same time, Instagram was starting to get more popular, and Instameets were popping up around the world.
Although I didn’t have a clear focus of what I wanted to photograph, I knew I wanted to design a project around a theme that would allow me to create, collaborate, and travel. That’s when I had the brilliant idea to bring back my favorite childhood character — and that’s how my mission to conquer and rule the world started. (Muahaha!)
How has the account evolved over time?
Something that has changed over time are the captions. In the beginning, I used to write long, reflective notes about the photos, but now, I prefer short messages with a bit of humor. People usually scroll through their feeds, observing the “perfect” lives other people seem to be living — so there’s nothing like a cartoonish photo with a bit of wit to put a smile on their faces, even if it’s only for a second.
Do you plan your shots before you travel somewhere, or do you simply explore and take photos wherever you feel most inspired?
I definitely do some research before visiting a new place. Sometimes I have a clear idea of the pictures I want to take, but most of the time, the photos come about naturally while traveling. I’ll pin the main attractions of the city on a map, and include a couple of ideas and some information on how to get there. Then, I tend to deliberately get lost and shoot a couple of unplanned photos in between the big sights.
What have been some of your favorite places you’ve visited since starting the Wally project?
A place I recently had a chance to visit that was very different culturally was Hong Kong. Although a fair amount of English influence can still be felt there, especially in the physical environment, the experience was incredible. The city is a mix of the future and the past, and seeing it all from Victoria Peak was breathtaking.
Where do you hope to travel in the future?
Oh, the list of places I’d like to visit is endless. One thing I would absolutely love to do is collaborate with non-profit organizations around the world and go wherever those opportunities take me. I think the work of non-profits is so necessary, and I would be honored to be part of something like that.
What do you hope people get out of viewing your images?
It is very simple: I hope people will feel good and be inspired.
Too often, we are bombarded with bad news and it feels as though the world is collapsing. Too often, we feel jealous of other people because they seem to have a more successful lives. Too often, we forget two little things. First, that people share exactly what they want you to see. Second, that success is relative. What may be the pinnacle for you might not look so good to me. So, if someone sees one of my photos and smiles, I have reached my goal. If they are inspired to travel and allow themselves to be transformed, I have excelled.
You can spot Rui in beautiful locations around the world by following him on Instagram.
Cover Photo by Devan Trammel