Behind the Lens Next to Bernie: Bryan Giardinelli

Bryan Giardinelli, the former campaign photographer for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. Photo courtesy to Giardinelli’s Facebook.

In April 2019, I attended a Bernie Sanders rally in Pittsburgh so that I could write an article and shoot photos for my university’s newspaper. An aide granted my pre-rally request and took me to the backstage tent in Schenley Plaza to interview San Juan, Puerto Rico mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto. During the rally itself I stood in the media section amidst a small sea of tripods as clouds parted away the original forecast of storms and rain to reveal golden late afternoon sunshine, furiously taking notes and snapping photos.

But though these feature most prominently in my memory, these weren’t the only memories from that day. I also have a faint memory of someone in a manbun and mustache traipsing around the special-access areas I was in, separate from the rallygoers, with a camera in hand like me.

Later, I saw that man’s photos on Twitter being retweeted by Cruz. I asked him some questions, and a Twitter friendship was born.

A huge crowd gathers in Pittsburgh, PA in April 2019 to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders speak.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at a rally in Pittsburgh, PA. Photos by Bryan Giardinelli.
Behind the scenes of the Pittsburgh rally, with San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto holding the child of a supporter in her arms. Photo by Bryan Giardinelli.

If you have been to rallies for Bernie Sanders during the 2019–2020 campaign season or watched them on TV, you may have noticed that man, with a long lens wrapped in blue and white “Bernie” tape, running around the podium and the fence that separates the podium from the supporters. That mustached man is Bryan Giardinelli, the official campaign photographer for the Sanders campaign before the campaign was suspended due to Joe Biden’s formidable lead in delegates as well as the rapidly-unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. But behind that man passionate about politics and ensuring true equality for all is a long, windy journey that includes a near-brush with death, a years-long recovery from a traumatic brain injury, a 180-degree political conversion, and despite everything he’s been through, a bursting talent for art and creativity that channels itself into all manner of artistic pursuits.

Growing up in the politically conservative town of Canyon Lake in California, Giardinelli was surrounded by predominantly white Christian families and peers. He attended a private Christian school and never had the chance to form any meaningful relationships with black people until he was a teenager. Political activism wasn’t a dominant theme among the youth of Canyon Lake, but like everyone else around him, Giardinelli had considered himself a Republican. He was also a creative child who enjoyed all manner of arts.

His childhood was shattered when he was severely injured in a car accident when he was 14. He was in a coma for a month and suffered from short-term memory loss for years after the traumatic brain injury. When Giardinelli was inspired to get a camera after his sister’s then-boyfriend showed him photos from Thailand, the camera became a tool to help him remember what his injured brain wouldn’t.

Like many Americans, Giardinelli moved out of his parents’ home on the cusp of adulthood. He said that was around the moment the “walls went down” for him politically — as in when he realized that the Republican ideology he grew up with wasn’t right for him anymore. Initially, he was drawn to the fiscal ideas of libertarianism, and even volunteered for Ron Paul’s campaign in college.

The next catalyst in his political transformation was a seven-week long trip to Europe. He realized that government spending to boost the welfare of underserved and marginalized communities was a necessity for society to function well. He eventually came to feel that the establishment Democratic party was overly in league with corporate interests, and thus was drawn to figures like Bernie Sanders.

Today, he doesn’t align himself with a particular ideology and instead believes in a wide array of generally socialist policies that he believes will benefit the majority. His advice on politics: always do your research.

His creative streak never faded, and for years he held down various artistic roles. Though the camera was just a memory-jogging tool at first, Giardinelli was soon being asked to shoot wedding photos, corporate advertisements and marketing materials, movie set photos, and music events. He shot Home Depot employee training videos and the Coachella festival. Eventually, his company won a contract on Shark Tank. At Shark Tank, he found a larger marketing audience, but when a large investor unexpectedly pulled out of the project, he lost his job and along with it, his health insurance. Unfortunately, he had also been living paycheck to paycheck, so he had little savings.

Fortunately for him, a reprieve was on its way to him. Coincidentally, the next day was the day of the first Bernie Sanders rally in southern California since 2016. He decided on the spot to create a new website and use it to obtain a press pass from the campaign to photograph the rally. A few Sanders rallies went by this way.

Hoping to capitalize on his experience photographing the rallies in southern California, he decided to go all-in with a new website called Breathe New Winds, a name based on the concept of breathing out one’s worries and breathing in the lessons learned and solutions to the worries in meditation. On Breathe New Winds, he posted some photos of the rallies, and standardized all his social media accounts to use that name. He then tweeted out some photos of the rallies that he had originally kept to himself — and a tweet featuring Sanders’ rally in Los Angeles went viral. That caught the attention of the Sanders campaign, which offered him a role as a campaign photographer and relieved him of his unemployed status.

It’s evident from Giardinelli’s social media posts that he genuinely loved being part of the Bernie Sanders campaign. To him, the campaign team seemed to be connected by more than just ideology; it felt like a family. This feeling was especially clear to him one blizzard night in Des Moines, Iowa when the campaign was working in a DoubleTree Hotel the night of the Democratic caucus. The staff members were exhausted and they had been unable to put together a popup rally due to the weather. Instead, the group spontaneously started reminiscing about their time on the campaign trail like a family might remember a vacation.

Another favorite moment for him was Sanders’ “comeback rally” with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in New York City, after Sanders had recovered from a heart attack. One of Giardinelli’s favorite shots from that day featured Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez standing in front of tens of thousands of supporters. He was moved by the passion and energy of the crowd and at that moment, it felt to him that victory was within reach.

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez in Queens, New York for Sanders’ “comback rally” after his heart attack. Photos by Bryan Giardinelli.

Giardinelli emphasizes that behind the scenes, Sanders is exactly the type of person we would assume he is from public appearances, calling the Vermont senator “steady”, “consistent”, “principled”, and “good”.

Like many Sanders supporters, Giardinelli remains skeptical of former vice president Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic nominee, but does emphasize that Biden is still a better alternative than the current president — at the very least, he sees a benefit of a Biden White House in that it would be more diverse than Trump’s, and that Biden would not attempt to become a dictator.

Giardinelli has met Biden in person and says the former vice president is a “nice guy”, but that meeting certainly hasn’t won him over to becoming a full-throated Biden supporter, mostly because Giardinelli still believes that Biden’s interests are not aligned with his own. Comparing Biden to someone who “shakes [one’s] hand [with] a dagger behind his back”, Giardinelli insists that all of Biden’s actions are for show without pressure from the left and that Biden would just continue what he sees as the shortcomings of Obama, such as drone strikes in the Middle East.

Though Giardinelli says that he has no faith that Biden would actually do anything good without public pressure from people like himself, he insists that a vote for Trump would be even worse because, as he put it, we would “not have a democracy in 2024”.

Living in decidedly-blue California, Giardinelli feels that he has the option not to vote for Biden, but acknowledges that he would vote for Biden despite what he termed Biden’s scandals if his residence were in a swing state.

“[The vote is for my] neighbors who don’t look like me,” Giardinelli, who is white, said.

As for Giardinelli’s own future plans, it isn’t immediately clear what kind of employment he would be able to find in the short term given the economic fallout from COVID-19. He’s been slowly working on a book of his photographs from the campaign with recounts of his experiences and campaign quotes. As someone who had been a photography teacher for seven years, he is also aiming for it to also be a photography educational tool by including information such as the camera settings for each photo and what he was thinking at the moment of the shot. Progress has been slow because his computer has been having problems and he hasn’t been able to afford a new one, in addition to the scars from his car accident injuries impeding his ability to make decisions among large numbers of items.

As for the title of the book? He hasn’t decided on a final one yet, but the tentative one is hopeful: “The Book of Us”.

Photo by Bryan Giardinelli.

You can check out his work at BreatheNewWinds.com and follow him on Twitter @BreatheNewWinds

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