When I walked out of the Penguin office in Sydney with a contract to write and photograph a book, I had no idea of what that meant and how that piece of paper would open my world to endless opportunities and people.
My editor Julie Gibbs cleverly asked me as I was about to get into the lift, ‘Do you remember the book A Thousand Days in Venice?’ and I replied, ‘Yes, it was one of my favourite books.’
Julie replied, ‘She was very honest,’ and wished me good luck.
I had no intention of being honest when I signed up to photograph and write a book but it was those words that accompanied me on the flight home from Sydney to Florence and haunted me when I sat down to start the project.
Did I have to be honest? At some point, I figured no one was going to read it anyway so I might as well tell the truth.
Italian Joy was a modest bestseller in Australia and maybe it was the honesty that touched the people that needed to find it and in turn reach out to find me.
The first person that ever wrote to me was John and it was an old-fashioned letter via my publisher. I was truly shocked that someone would actually write me a letter; it was way back in 2005 and the internet hadn’t ramped up to its current state of being able to reach out to absolutely anyone on the planet.
John wrote how he had loved Italian Joy and was of Italian descent, was mad about photography, and worked in Adelaide as a car salesman. I was fascinated that someone not only bought the book but liked it and touched that this mystery person would bother to write to me.
When he signed up to come to my first ever workshop in Sydney, I felt nervous and wondered what I could possibly offer this sweet person. He sent me a note days before the workshop telling me ‘that he couldn’t wait to be inspired’ and again I never thought anyone would be coming to be inspired, just to learn the information I was ready to pass on.
His words were like an electric cattle prod, I reworked everything.
I thought about what would be inspirational if you had never had your photography published or if you dreamed of being a photographer or having your work admired by others.
My audience was predominantly female and as we welcomed the people to my first ever workshop, I knew there were only a couple of male names on the list and that the smiling face was John even before asking his name. His eyes twinkled, his smile was of the wraparound variety, and I just wanted to hug him.
It’s always an honour to think that someone would travel all the way from Adelaide to Sydney to attend my workshop but this husband and father of one was one of those rare souls that you felt like you have known forever within the first five minutes of meeting them.
As the day progressed, John would sidle up next to me or pass by when I was in conversation, and out the corner of his mouth utter ‘in awe’ with that twinkle in his eye, and for someone who was overwhelmed by the thought of even holding a workshop yet meeting many of the kind souls who had written to me throughout the years, they were two words that puzzled me at the same time made me burst into laughter.
I had never been put on a pedestal and for the first time in my life, the beautiful John Callisto had managed to do that. That was John’s magic: he made you feel good. I attribute the success of that workshop to him, for looking forward to being inspired and in turn inspiring me to make it better.
Years later, I had the joy of holding a workshop in Puglia and travelling with a group of photographers to Puglia, and one of John’s dreams was to come on that trip. His wife Claudia made it happen and John joined our ‘Caravan’ and adventures in the South of Italy.
On that trip, John went from being ‘my number one fan’ to family. I loved that man, he was the glue in a group of eleven women. John loved photography and was an excellent photographer. He would carry two cameras at once and he would literally throw himself into situations whether it be a card game in a men’s club, trying to get the best shot in a local butcher, or capturing a religious service. Hence, his photos were imbued with his incredible empathy and love for life, with the passion and enthusiasm that John had for Italy and people.
John was ‘all in’. He would talk to people in Italian and if they didn’t understand then he would try in sign language, the energy of the man would bubble and flow till they all understood.
John lived life wholeheartedly, there were tears and laughter, hugs and wonder, jokes and stories from the heart. John would tell us over and over how much he loved and missed his wife and son, some days he would be late for breakfast because he was gathering his emotions from being so far away from the people he loved.
If Brené Brown needs a photograph for the depiction of what it means to live and love wholeheartedly, she could simply put a portrait of John Callisto under the word ‘wholeheartedly’.
John passed away recently from a heart attack at the age of 53 and my heart broke. How could the man that had such a huge hand in my life and success just leave us like that. As his wife Claudia said in her eulogy, “Today we are placing John’s physical body at his final resting place but I know his soul has already reached heaven above. They process the good ones real quick and he would have certainly been in the VIP line. He probably knew the person at the entrance gate and got the special treatment. The person would have announced to everyone hey John Callisto the Merc one has arrived, let him directly through. John would have replied, ‘Oh no, please don’t make any fuss on my part, I’m just glad to be part of all the action. Let this old lady in first, she looks more tired than me.'”
John was a great one. The kind of man we need more of, a man willing to feel the love and the pain, the laughter and the joy, to give and receive, to have the courage to put words to his feelings and dare to say them out aloud to the people he cared about. That’s true courage.
It has been seventeen years since that first letter arrived and we always stayed in touch. Many kind words have been said to me over the years but John Callisto’s have stayed with me. When he was on the way back to the airport after our Puglia workshop, he said to my fellow photographer, ‘The workshop was overwhelming,’ and my friend said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘The first half of it, I was just getting over the awe of being with Carla!’
I wish I had one more chance to tell John the enormous impact he had on my life, how those words made their way back to me and filled my heart with pride. That his words counted more than he could ever know and that with everything I have ever done since that first workshop, I ask myself, ‘Would this inspire John?’ If the answer was no, I would improve whatever I was doing.
To Claudia and Marcus, the love and light of his life, I send my deepest condolences to both of you and I can vouch along with a whole group of photographers in Puglia that you were two of the most loved people on the planet and John proudly told us so daily.
As Claudia said in her eulogy, ‘John had a life well-lived, despite his passing at an early age. I know that in my heart, a good life is not measured by the years you have lived, but by the love you have given and received. In terms of this definition then, this would in fact make John very very old — ancient in fact.’
Godspeed, beautiful John.