Gabriele Galimberti’s adventure starts with one love story. Ends with another. And was catapulted by a community willing to share their couches, children and grandmothers with total strangers.
The first love story put Gabriele on a plane from Italy to Texas. He had shuttered his photography studio to start a new chapter with his then-girlfriend in Houston. When the love story ended, Gabriele started traveling, photographing interesting subjects, and hoping his passions would lead somewhere. Ideally somewhere that paid.
During this time Gabriele used the site couchsurfing.org to find places to crash. His hosts were different ages. Different religions. They lived on different continents but all had something in common: the willingness to share their homes with strangers. For free. A lightbulb went on over Gabriele’s head.
“I wanted to make a portrait of the couchsurfing phenomenon,” he said. “I thought that if each one of us was a couchsurfer the world would be a better place.”
The editors at the Italian magazine D di Repubblica bought his pitch of couchsurfing around the world, interviewing and photographing his hosts along the way. It was supposed to be a yearlong project but the Repubblica readers wanted more.
Two years later, Gabriele had visited 58 countries and shared the stories of 100 couchsurfing hosts. He slept with a python, a cobra and a Chinese woman named Yue. He learned about Hindu wedding rites, met an aspiring Botswana priest and stayed on a boat sailing the fjords of Norway.
But in the weeks before Gabriele left for his couchsurfing adventure, a portrait of a friend’s daughter and a chance conversation with his grandmother inspired two projects that would lead to success beyond his imagination.
Gabriele’s most popular project is Toy Stories, a powerful series of portraits of children and their favorite toys. In Zambia, six-year old Maudy poses with a box full of discarded sunglasses. In Malawi, Chiwa has a dinosaur that she believes will protect her from the animals that stalk her family’s hut at night.
The inspiration for Toy Stories came after Gabriele photographed a friend’s daughter in her family’s barn, not far from his Tuscan home. In the photo, little Alessia stands with four grazing cows, a line of plastic toy gardening tools at her feet.
Another lightbulb went on in Gabriele’s head. “It was just an intuition,” he said.
A few weeks later, he visited his grandmother. She was concerned about his upcoming couchsurfing trip. Not that he was traveling to strange lands. Or that he was staying in the homes of strangers.
She was worried what he would eat for lunch. You should stay here, she insisted, so I can cook for you.
Cue the lightbulb again. Gabriele decided to ask grandmothers to cook for him during his travels. He photographed the women and their meals in a project called Delicatessen with Love.
It wasn’t hard to find his subjects. Most of the grandmothers and children in the portraits are relatives of his couchsurfing hosts.
Gabriele’s work has appeared in the New York Times. His Toy Stories and Delicatessen With Love series will be turned into books. He even met the lead singer of Kings of Convenience, one of his favorite bands, who had heard of Gabriele’s work and invited him to couchsurf at his Norway home.
The fame has blown him away.
“I’m really happy,” Gabriele said. “But I have to honestly admit I didn’t expect this much success.”
Worldwide acclaim isn’t the only thing to come out of these projects.
Gabriele’s last couchsurfing stop was in Columbia. He stayed with an art teacher named Catalina. I bet you can guess the rest.
“After three days something happened and we fell in love,” Gabriele said. “I wasn’t looking for love, but couchsurfing gave me a gift in the end.”
His advice to aspiring photographers, writers and creatives? Follow your dreams and don’t give up.
There were plenty of low moments where Gabriele was funding his own work, making pennies, and shooting weddings and shoes – work he wasn’t really passionate about – to get by.
“If I was just thinking about money and I would have given up four or five years ago,” he said. “If you feel that you want to do this, you have to try. The money will come. Maybe.”