Four years ago, the Italian photographer Fabio Moscatelli met a boy named Gioele through a mutual friend, and he embarked on a lifelong friendship. Gioele has autism, and communication isn’t always easy, but as he passes from childhood into adolescence, he continues to develop a shared language with the photographer. In addition to Moscatelli’s photographs, the book and exhibition Gioele includes drawings and photographs by the young man.

When he started the project, Moscatelli didn’t know much about autism, but he was curious. He wanted to find the reality beneath the stereotypes and the prejudices, and Gioele’s family welcomed him into their lives and homes. A sense of mutual trust was established early, and Moscatelli waited a month before he started photographing. “I stopped considering Gioele as a subject almost immediately,” the photographer admits. “He became a traveling companion on an extraordinary journey.”

Gioele, like Moscatelli, is an artist. He draws mythical animals, including colored zebras and make-believe creatures like those the photographer describes as “spider-wolves” and “domestic lions.” He was interested in the camera too and sometimes asked to be photographed. Since then, he’s also started taking his own photographs.

Moscatelli compares caring for someone with autism to looking through a window. Each person sees the other, but some things remain unreachable. In one photograph, Gioele sitting in front of an actual window with a toy guitar, and we can see his silhouette behind the curtain. The boy had asked to have lunch at the photographer’s house, and it was the first time he had gone out and done something without his parents. “I clearly remember that was the 8th of December,” the photographer tells me. “And I will never forget it.” In his words, the collaboration is like “working on a puzzle”; as time goes by, they are able to access each other a little bit more.

One person who easily communicates with Gioele is Moscatelli’s daughter Syria. “There isn’t a wall between them,” the artist says. “They are friends and they enjoy spending time together.” They frequently play games, watch movies, and attend parties, and the photographer credits Gioele with having made him a better father. Now in high school, he has grown taller than Moscatelli, and the photographer thinks of him as a son. He explains, “Through his attention to the little things and his happiness about his everyday conquests, he taught me to appreciate life and everything it has in store for us, for better or worse.”

Gioele is a personal story about two families, but Moscatelli understands that it will resonate with people across physical and psychological borders. “I hope people will overcome their fear of difference,” he says. “Spending time with guys like Gioele is a treasure and a human experience that is almost impossible to explain.” At the exhibition, Gioele welcomed the visitors and spoke to them about the work. His parents and Moscatelli daydream about him growing up one day to become a photographer himself. Learn more about the book here.

All images © Fabio Moscatelli