Almost twenty years ago Atlanta was frenetically preparing for the Centennial Olympic Games. Immediately after every Olympics, the Paralympic Games are held. These disabled athletes have lots of determination and heart. I set up a studio in one of the buildings where the athletes live in the Paralympic Village. Today it’s part of Georgia Tech. The organizer’s concept was to photograph Paralympic Athletes with their medals. Frankly, I made photographs of whoever wanted to pose.
The first day of the scheduled three day shoot was finally over. My girlfriend, Starr and I had just finished packing up the gear and were ready to get something for dinner. A young man with a bicycle came through the doors. A bronze medal hung around his neck. He pushed the bike with is only leg. He had no forearms. He was speaking to me excitedly in Spanish. I don’t speak any language but English, sadly. Fortunately, Starr was fluent.
The athlete was desperate to have his photograph made. I suggested through Starr that he come back at ten the next morning. “No! No! No! Please! Please take my picture right now!” was his answer. I smiled at his passion and started resetting the studio. I thought that anyone that excited about having his picture made “right now” was someone I wanted to photograph. While I readied the gear, Starr listened to his story.
He explained that his sport was swimming. During the day’s competition, he finished in fifth place. I was amazed he could swim at all having only one leg and two half arms. Let alone finish fifth. He went on to tell us that the officials had disqualified the third and fourth place competitors. He was awarded the Bronze medal for third place. He wanted the photograph to prove that at least for one day he was a Paralympic medal winner. He was terrified that the officials would change their minds; that they would take back his medal. He told us that with a photograph he could show that he had won. The photo would prove that he had had a bronze Paralympic medal when he returned to his home in Chile. He posed for me in front of my Hasselblad filled with Kodak Tri-X black and white film. I made several exposures. I pulled out my Polaroid back and shot some instant photos that he could take with him. He understood the power of a photograph. He also taught me to understand.
The morning of the last day I saw him riding by on his bike. I called out to him “Gabriel! You have your medal?” His smile was legendary. His English much better than my Spanish and his reply, “Si, si! Yes!” was beyond joyful. “Gracias!” he said, waving as he passed by.
His name is Gabriel Velasquez.This is my photograph of him as it came out of the camera.
I keep a copy of Gabriel’s photograph in my studio and at my home. When ever I feel down or if something I’m doing seems to difficult, I take moment to look at Gabriel. He makes me smile. His courage, his determination to swim in spite of how hard it might be, yes, the simple joy in his smile tells me to keep going. If the man in my photograph can do it, so can I. Thanks for teaching about the power a photograph can have, Gabriel. Thank you.