Award-winning photographer, Gillian Marshall has an innate passion for South Asia, which, she believes, is the rich legacy of her late uncle, who served as a British Political Officer in Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim, in the 1930’s. He and her late aunt spent 2 ½ years based in Sikkim (now an Indian state), during which time they formed deep personal relationships with the royal families of Bhutan and Sikkim and Tibet’s 13th Dalai Lama. Since 1995, Gillian has fueled her passion by traveling extensively in this fragile region of our world, enmeshed in the culture and folklore of Bhutan, India, Laos, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Tibet. She has visited Bhutan three times, twice as a guest of the Royal Family. In 1998, during her first visit to this Himalayan kingdom, she met Ashi Tashi (sister of Her Majesty The Royal Grandmother). During her aunt and uncle’s time in Bhutan, Gillian’s Aunt Peggy and Ashi (Bhutanese for ‘princess’) shared a great friendship, despite their seventeen-year age difference. Gillian recalls, “It was so very moving to come full circle, sixty-five years later”.
In 2000, during her travels in India, Gillian was granted a private audience with His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, where His Holiness and thousands of Tibetans have lived in exile from Chinese-occupied Tibet since 1959. A unique experience, she recalls, and one that she will not soon forget. “His Holiness is a modest man, of huge knowledge and depth, and a rich sense of humor. His true greatness is born in the depths of his simplicity; his presence is all-embracing. He welcomed me with warmth. We sat in comfortable chairs, facing each other and enjoying conversation. For twenty minutes I was aware only of this holy man and the complete attention he gave me.”
Eleven years ago, Gillian began sponsoring a child in India, Chandrika – “now fifteen years old, beautiful and highly intelligent. She attends boarding-school not far from her village”. In 2007, Gillian spent three weeks traveling in Sri Lanka – a lush, green verdant jewel of an island. While traveling around its south coast, she witnessed firsthand the area that bore much of the brunt of the 2004 tsunami. Signs of this horrific event were plentiful. Much property had since been rebuilt, but large piles of rubble remained and shells of what used to be solid brick houses stretched along the coast, a reminder of Nature’s wrath during which 60,000 Sinhalese perished.
In 2011, Gillian made her first visit to Laos, Southeast Asia and fell in love with the tiny, land-locked country - its beauty, its simplicity and serenity of life, and its gentle, welcoming people - so much so that she is now living in Luang Prabang (a UNESCO World Heritage site) for the greater part of each year. In October 2012, while she was serving as a volunteer English teacher at the Mekong English Center in Luang Prabang, Gillian made occasional weekend excursions, either by road or upriver on the Mekong, photographing the glorious countryside, colorful markets and picturesque village communities. It was on one such excursion that she encountered Somlid, a young boy in a small Khmu village near the lodge where she was staying. The Khmu are one of Laos’ major ethnic groups. She learned that when he was four, Somlid had contracted spinal TB and for seven long months suffered terrible back pain and had trouble breathing. He nearly died. His parents were too poor to get him to a doctor. Their village has a population of eighty, the men weave baskets of bamboo to sell in the local markets and the villagers grow rice, their food staple. If they don't get a good crop, they don't have enough food for the year.
The disease left Somlid with a severely deformed spine. Wanting to help this precious child, Gillian e-mailed a brilliant orthopaedic surgeon in Connecticut, telling him of Somlid's plight and sending him photographs. This surgeon forwarded her documentation to a colleague at Boston Children's Hospital, Massachusetts and, from these beginnings evolved an amazing chain of e-mails from one orthopaedic specialist to another: from California... to Missouri... even to Geneva, Switzerland. Compassionate, caring doctors, at the top of their profession, all wanting to help Somlid. In April 2013, Gillian received an e-mail from a spinal surgeon in Indiana, who, by a miraculous coincidence, offers free clinics each year in Laos for those in great need.
As a result, Gillian embarked on what someone called a "mission of mercy". In June 2013, she returned to Laos and took Somlid to Dr. Hartman, who was based for a week at a hospital in Vientiane, central Laos. On June 26, Somlid underwent a 10½ -hour surgery, performed by Dr. Hartman and his ‘team of angels’, as Gillian called his associate surgeons and attending nurses. Dr. Hartman’s God-given surgical talent and benevolence have given Somlid a second chance at life. Gillian remained with Somlid for the two weeks he was hospitalized, then she, together with Somlid and his father (who had accompanied them on this mission), flew back to Luang Prabang where it was Dr. Hartman’s edict that Somlid stay with Gillian in her hotel for a month in order for his recovery to be in a clean, healthy environment, with a high protein diet – conditions hard to come by in his village. Finally, just a little more than six weeks after his spinal surgery, Somlid returned home. He and Gillian made the three-hour boat trip up the Mekong River and were greeted by an excited crowd of villagers, young and old, all filled with curiosity and amazed by the difference in his stature. Somlid, standing tall! In October 2013 and February 2014, Gillian returned yet again to Laos, to take Somlid for check-ups by Dr. Hartman, who, after the second check-up-up, pronounced him as doing brilliantly well and that no further check-ups were needed. After the February check-up, Gillian remained in Luang Prabang for three months, serving as a volunteer at @My Library – a wonderful oasis of learning, founded a decade ago by Carol Kresge, an ex-pat from Florida, where the younger generation of Luang Prabang can broaden their horizons, follow their dreams, and pursue their goals. Indeed, Carol has helped some students of potential attain scholarships overseas.
Thusfar, Gillian has raised close to $8,000 in funds to help Somlid's family with the very basic essentials in life: food, clothing, and schooling for Somlid and his two younger brothers. Now, Somlid and his brothers attend their village primary school, and the family are now living happily in a spacious, sturdy cinder-block house - far removed from the one-room bamboo shack which they previously called ‘home’. From time to time, Somlid comes into town to stay with Gillian for a few nights. It is her hope that in 2 - 3 years’ time he will be able to study at a school in Luang Prabang and better his education. “He is of huge intelligence, quick to learn and soaks up knowledge like a sponge. Now that he knows what is beyond his village, he can follow his dreams and find doors that are open to him,” says Gillian.
Some years ago, she compiled a slide presentation of images shot in Bhutan which was shown numerous times as a fund-raiser to help defray expenses surrounding the daughter of a Bhutanese friend, diagnosed in 2008 with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Gillian is happy to report that Rosie undergoes regular check-ups, but is well and full of life.
In Gillian’s past is a decade spanning the 1970s and 1980s when she worked as an agent’s assistant in New York at International Creative Management, leading to freelance work with luminaries such as Dame Maggie Smith, Jeremy Irons, Tom Stoppard and the late Sir Laurence Olivier, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.
In May, 2014, feeling so very much at home in Luang Prabang, Gillian decided to make her life there more permanent. She now rents a studio apartment a few minutes from the town center and continues her volunteer work at @My Library, where she gives daily lessons in English to a group of students and novices from some of the local Buddhist temples. She delights in her classes, saying that her students are such friendly souls, eager to learn, and each with a good sense of humor. Other activities might include a game of Scrabble (“an excellent tool for broadening their English vocabulary”). Gillian says of her work, “Never before have I felt such fulfillment …for the first time in my life, I truly feel I am doing something worthwhile”. She still maintains residency in the U.S.A. and her condo in Connecticut is her permanent pied-a-terre for whenever she is Stateside.
Gillian’s images depict the culture and folklore of Bhutan, India, Laos, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tibet, reflecting a palpable enchantment with the majesty of the Himalayas, the princely splendor of the palaces, the quixotic garb of the nomadic tribes on the edge of civilization, people who still live much the same way their ancestors did hundreds, even thousands of years ago. One reviewer has acclaimed her work as imbued “with the richness of her experiences.”
Her portfolio has received more than 70 awards and she has had numerous solo exhibitions throughout Fairfield County, CT. Her studies appear in private collections in the USA, Europe and India, and she has a line of greeting cards and post cards. For thirteen seasons Gillian served as photographer for Rowayton’s annual summer festival, Shakespeare on the Sound. A staffer of the organization, cognizant of her work as company photographer, commented: “No one worked harder to get the shots that fulfill the assignment.”
Of her Asian photography, Gillian says, “Each of my journeys to this fragile region of our planet brings riches beyond compare. A kaleidoscope of gloriously colorful cultures and contrasts, myths and history, folklore and traditions. In 1897, Mark Twain described India as “the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods…”. To me, South Asia is all of that. The awesome majesty of the mighty Himalaya; Tibet’s high plateaus, dotted with yaks and nomads; the lush green countryside and white sand beaches of Sri Lanka; Rajasthan, state of princely palaces and the Thar desert; the mystique of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, and the tribes who live in their woodlands and hills; Laos, my ‘adopted home’, with its golden temples, colorful markets and the air redolent with the fragrance of frangipani; the “Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon”, Bhutan, steeped in Buddhism…a land of flora and fauna, monasteries and mountain streams, prayer flags and prayer wheels. I am blessed to have come to know the people of these regions - indigenous peoples, many of whom still live at one with their ancestors. Giggling, curious children surround me as I immerse myself in mystic cultures and delight in the richness of my experiences. In my images, I strive to capture the essence of these precious souls whom I meet along the way - each with their unique, distinct culture and customs. If, through my photography, I can bring to my viewers a sense of South Asia, its peoples and its culture, then my dream is fulfilled.”