I met Guido Gabrielli when I photographed the YogaFestival Milano in Italy in October 2011. He is the publisher of Yoga Journal Italia, and I was introduced to him by the festival director at the Yoga Journal booth. When you first meet him, you immediately see that he is disabled in some fashion. His posture is hunched and crooked, his gait is slow and shuffling and he has some trouble balancing. But you are quickly overwhelmed by the bright sharp intelligence of his eyes and his smile. He can’t lift his head all the way up, so you are observed from underneath his lifted eyebrows. Combined with his habitual half-smile, this brings a quizzical humorous energy to his gaze. Giulia Borioli, the festival director, had already shown him my work, and he was quite complimentary. My ears perked up when he mentioned featuring some of my images in his magazine.
But then he got around to another point. “I love your work,” he said, “there is a poetry in it I have never seen before in pictures of yoga. I have been this way for 15 years,” gesturing at his body, “and I have never allowed anyone to photograph me doing yoga. I would like you to do that for me.” Whoa. Of course I agreed, and of course I was honored, and of course I was secretly intimated. This was a sacred request, and I felt a pressure to live up to it. We set a time for the next day in my temporary on-site studio.
Guido showed up the next day right on time. The studio space was in an empty warehouse on the grounds of the convention complex hosting the yoga festival. A big, echoing dark space, it dwarfed the small lighting kit I had brought with from Boulder. I went through the same ritual that I always do. We sat facing each other cross-legged, and I asked him how he had found yoga, or yoga had found him. While he speaks slowly and carefully, his English is flawless.
“In my mid-thirties, I was diagnosed with leukemia,” he said. “I survived because of a bone marrow transplant, but it left me with Chronic Graft vs. Host Disease which has caused my disability. It was a terrible time in my life. I lost my marriage and I didn’t know what to do with my life or my body.”
In a way, the stark setting we were in was perfect for such a deep and emotional story. Just the two of us, connecting in the middle of emptiness.
“I decided I needed to save myself, and so I set out on a journey of psychotherapy and yoga. And from that has flowed the success of my life. I gained strength and belief in myself, I started my own successful publishing business, and I found love and a wife.” We then sat together in silence, eyes closed, hands at heart center, just breathing.
Normally when I do a yoga portrait, I cue people through Sun Salutations and later poses as if teaching them. I’m practiced at this, and I know which poses to direct clients into and how to cue alignment to get aesthetic results. But with Guido, I said nothing. He simply started practicing and I simply watched. And shot. His practice is strong and experienced, and while the challenges of his body are substantial, in no way does his yoga “give in” to them. Halfway through I started crying. This warm, gentle amazing man was letting me in – without drama, or self-pity, or expectation. He practiced for about 25 minutes and finished in a Savasana. When he got up and came over, I think we both knew we had experienced, and created, something special. He cried when I showed him the images on the back of the camera. We have since become friends, and I look forward to connecting with him at the Rome Festival in June. In the spirit of that session, no more words from me. Enjoy the following photos, and there is a link below to the full set with larger images.
If you are inspired or moved by this piece, please consider a donation to the Leukemia Society, or the charity of your choice. Namaste, Jim.