After over 20 years as a model, Gigi Stoll was ready for something else. She wanted to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. Combining her passion for travel and art with giving back just made sense.
She established herself as a photographer in the fashion world. Then, six years ago in Morocco, she participated in her first pediatric medical mission with ISMS (International Surgical Mission Support) Operation Kids—an organization that provides free medical care to the poor around the globe. She photographed the team during their groundbreaking humanitarian efforts. Now, after nearly a dozen missions with several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), she is only more dedicated to helping people in need—particularly children.
Here, Stoll shares how humanitarian work has helped her find personal strength and balance:
Live The Process: How has your approach to your own physical and mental wellbeing transformed since transitioning from model to photographer?
Gigi Stoll: Physically, I am much more comfortable with my weight and appearance. I am a tall, big-boned gal, and fitting into a size six was impossible no matter how much I starved myself when I was modeling. Though I had a more than twenty-year long career, the fittings were always nerve-racking and the stylists rarely had shoes my size. In the end, modeling changed my life for the better and it introduced me to my true passion, so I am very grateful I had that opportunity. The amazing locations and the colorful crowd introduced me to a world I had never imagined as a girl growing up in South Texas. The transition from being in front of the camera to working behind the camera was seamless, and it taught me valuable lessons on how to work with subjects.
LTP: You were already known for your nude portraits when you began working with NGOs in 2008: what inspired you to use your talent to help people in distressed areas?
GS: I shot fashion portraits for years, but I yearned for something more rewarding without all the attitudes and personalities involved. I dreamed of doing humanitarian work, though I really didn't know where to begin. In 2008, I was returning home after traveling through Morocco, and I started a conversation with a fellow American woman during a long layover in Casablanca. She knew a group of surgeons in New York City who were starting a pediatric medical mission and happened to be looking for a photographer. I met with the team and, within a few months, my first mission was back to Morocco. ISMS Operation Kids performs free, state-of-the-art medical procedures for impoverished children worldwide, their motto being: "To the world I may be one person but to one person I may be the world. Healing children one at a time."
The doctors are the true artists and I just document their work. Other host countries have included: Egypt, Peru, Kenya, Guatemala, India and Myanmar. Eventually, other NGOs saw my work and I now have ten missions under my belt for ISMS Operation Kids, 100 Cameras, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Save The Children and Belmond Hotels CSR Project/Myanmar.
LTP: How do you make sure to care for yourself—physically and spiritually—while on location?
GS: I always find time to practice yoga. I travel with large teams—sometimes up to 26 people—and it's usually easy to find company. Time is normally the problem since we work long hours, but it's really beneficial to meditate during early mornings, even if it's only for ten minutes. Each night, I write down the events of the day for future reference, and this process also calms my spirits.
LTP: How has documenting people in need shaped your personal outlook?
GS: The first missions were tough. Now, I take as much time as I need to slowly integrate back into my normal routine. But I always come back a changed woman from all that we see on these missions. It makes me incredibly grateful for all the opportunities in my life, and I have kissed the ground upon returning home several times. The simple things that we take for granted, and having so many choices in life, particularly strike me. The children’s stories stay in my mind for months, especially since I relive the experience editing the thousands of images after each mission.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
GS: Sharing my life with my beautiful partner of six years and our two adorable cats. Nature is very important to me too. I grew up on a small horse farm in South Texas, right off of a small river; we had every kind of animal. Now, I have a new apartment a block from the Hudson River and I couldn't be happier with the constant flow of energy upon the river and the perfect view of the sunset. Born on the summer solstice, I crave sunshine and warmth. Animals are very sacred to me. Totem animals include: Horses, wolves and hawks. As an occasional birder, hawks and falcons always seem to cross my path or sight. The wind upon my face makes me smile. Different times of light in a day. Shadows. Travel enriches my soul and I still have quite a list of dream destinations. Family and friends fill my heart. Learning new things is a daily practice.
LTP: What does it mean to you to "Live The Process" and how do you do that every day?
GS: I strive to keep a calm state of mind and live in the moment each day. A practice of gratitude. Paying attention. Helping others who are less fortunate than myself. Volunteering and giving back. Silence. Meditation. Exercising my body and mind to be a stronger, better person. Challenging and facing my fears. Listening to others. Learning from elders. Admitting my mistakes. Remaining humble. Honoring my past, but embracing my future.
Gigi Stoll’s work will be on view September 18 through October 4 in the exhibition, “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live” at the De Buck Gallery.
Find more information on ISMS Operation Kids here.