Like many great artists before him, German photographer Marco Gehlhar has an innate capacity for trusting his own instincts. It was this ability to follow his nose that led him to the medium of photography many years ago. Born to parents who both had careers in the industry, he found his own way to a camera after spending a decade producing and art directing concerts and festivals. Despite the extensive experience he had gathered, he felt a deep desire to follow in the footsteps of his parents, and as a result, moved from Munich to Milan to become a photo assistant and eventually an established photographer in his own right.
It was also his instincts that led him to stumble across a secluded meeting of the Universal White Brotherhood (UWB) in Bulgaria in 2019. Having travelled to the country as part of a road trip with a friend, he felt compelled to go hiking in the Rila mountain range after his travelling companion had returned home. Upon reaching one of the peaks, he discovered, to his surprise, hundreds of figures draped in white clothes dancing in a fashion that reminded him of Tai Chi. Captivated by the unusual display, he approached the swaying crowd and found that the rhythmic movement was part of a dance performed by the UWB during their annual meeting in the Seven Rila Lakes.
This chance encounter, resulting from Marco’s desire for exploration, became the subject of a body of work titled In Light, which was released earlier this year. Part photo series, part short film, the work investigates the traditions of the UWB, which was founded towards the end of the 19th Century by Bulgarian philosopher and spiritual teacher Peter Deunov. His teachings, which fall under a form of Christian esoterism, are characterised by practices such as prayers, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga of nutrition and ‘paneurhythmy’ — or, in other words, physical musical exercises.
The group takes its name from the following understandings of each word: ‘Universal’ as a reference to the idea that people can expand their consciousness with universal concepts about life; ‘White’ as a reference to "the highest spiritual symbol, which is the synthesis of all colours”; and ‘Brotherhood’ as a reference to the openness of the group’s teachings, which are “for every human no matter what community, religion, or group they belong to.”
Despite the UWB’s relatively small following in the present day, Marco was drawn to them from the very beginning, and says that In Light is an attempt to understand and communicate their perspectives and practices. Equally, the project concerns itself with broader themes surrounding “the universal language of music and dance, the connection between humans and nature, and the power of community and spirituality.”
Through both his photographs and the short film that he made with director Alice Fassi, Marco hopes to “convey a message of unity, harmony and love, and to showcase the beauty of human connection and the natural world.” In both, subdued imagery, with occasional pops of colour, show the special gatherings that take place in this remote part of Bulgaria, capturing the profound energy created by humans together, in motion. Though this captivating practice is performed out in the open, there is the sense that we have stumbled on a secret, just as Marco once did.
Marco Gehlhar: In Light (Copyright © Marco Gehlhar, 2023)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.