Viral videos are a dime a dozen on YouTube. Show us a cute kitten or a Justin Bieber smile and we'll show you a million page views. But how many YouTube clips go on to inspire transatlantic journeys, international scavenger hunts and hundreds of new viral friendships with strangers? That's precisely what happened when New York City filmmaker Todd Bieber (no relation to Justin) discovered a lost canister of film in December, developed the photos and posted a short video about them on YouTube.
It all began on Dec. 30, just days after New York City's biggest snowfall of the season. Wanting to make the most of the snowy scenery, Bieber strapped on a pair of cross-country skies and headed out to Prospect Park, a 585-acre (237 hectare) expanse a few blocks from his Brooklyn home. Pausing in the park, the 31-year-old looked down and noticed a 35mm-film canister lying on the ground. On a whim, he pocketed it, and later took the roll of Ilford 400 black and white to a professional developer, carefully offering the disclaimer that the shots were not in fact his own. "You don't know what's on film," Bieber says. "You don't know if there's something creepy on it. I was like, 'If there's something weird on it, just know, it's not mine.' "
But the results were anything but creepy. Flipping through the carefully framed shots of a rare New York City whiteout, Bieber says, "I was like, These are amazing pictures." Amid the meticulously composed scenes of Central Park, Coney Island and Bieber's own neighborhood were staged shots of two men and two women scenes that stirred his imagination. He guessed that the models weren't New Yorkers "Something about their hair and their look and the fact that they weren't smiling in the pictures. They had this very European look" and resolved to track down the owner of the film. Bieber, who works in the video department of the comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade, thought the best way to find the original photographer would be to make a movie about the mystery images and post it on YouTube.
He thought right. The short part travelogue, part mystery thriller caught on immediately. Within days, it went viral, Bieber was interviewed by national news outlets, and e-mails began pouring in 500 in four days. "I got over 800 e-mails" in total, he says, some offering tips for his search, others just notes of encouragement. A few strangers even offered the use of their couches, if he were to ever visit their city on a hunt for the photographer. "I've never gotten e-mails like that," Bieber tells TIME. "I mean, I got e-mails from people that were just so heartfelt, so sincere. And sincere on the Internet is not something you see very often."
Overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness and convinced that it would likely be the end of the story, Bieber made a second video a love letter of sorts to the strangers he had been lucky enough to connect with via YouTube.
But that was not the end of the story.
Of the 800 messages he received, one came from a woman named Stephanie. She claimed to recognize something from the photos: the view from her front door. Stephanie explained that she'd had a roommate, Camille, a student who had recently moved back home to Paris, and that she might well be the photographer. At first, Bieber didn't think much of the claim more than a few of the e-mails had turned out to be hoaxes, and he didn't see anyone in the photos who might match the young woman's description until he received an e-mail from Camille herself, then back in Paris. After a phone call confirmed that Camille was in fact the photographer, Bieber made his next move: he decided that he and his girlfriend Juliana Brafa would return the film in person. "Mailing [the photos] just seemed so boring," he says. "I booked the flight literally hours after I confirmed that this was real."
Camille's busy school schedule meant that she would not be able to meet with Bieber and Brafa until the end of their trip. So for six days, the couple traveled across Europe, visiting several of the people who had e-mailed Bieber with offers of lodging and camaraderie. In Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France, Bieber met fans of his viral video, strangers who had been so deeply touched by his simple act of kindness. In late February, the couple finally arrived in Paris and met Camille. Reunited with the roll of film, Camille recalled that she had taken her camera out one day after New York City's blizzard while her family was visiting. The men in the photos were her two older brothers; the women were her mother and aunt.
When he returned to the U.S., Bieber edited his European footage into a memorable postscript. More than 20,000 viewers found the footage on Wednesday, its first full day in circulation. As word spreads across the Internet that Bieber's mystery has been solved, that viewership is sure to soar.
From the day he found the film to the day he returned from Europe, less than two months had passed. But Bieber says that what struck him most about the experience was just how quickly a foolhardy online experiment could evolve into a meaningful, life-changing adventure. "Someone said to me, 'Life isn't what happens when you're hitting 'like' on Facebook or observing other people's lives [online]," Bieber says in reflection. "You're never going to have a life story about what you posted on your wall that day."