Friday, March 21, 2008

What Are You Looking At?

Born without legs, Kevin Connolly snaps photos of people staring at him -- turning the watchers into the watched.


When Kevin Connolly was ten years old his family took him to Disney World, but for some theme park visitors that day, it was Connolly who quickly became the main attraction.
Born without legs but otherwise healthy, Connolly traveled the world, taking pictures of people as they stared at him.
"I remember distinctly being surrounded by Japanese tourists trying to take my photograph without talking to me or asking me," he says from his apartment in Bozeman, Montana. "My dad was right behind me, and I remember him getting pretty frustrated with the whole process, because it was something that was happening every single day."

Born without legs, Connolly was already used to the stares of strangers -- but that moment would help him start to understand that the lens could work in both directions.

On a solo trip to Europe, more than a decade later, he was riding his skateboard down a Vienna street when he felt a man staring at him.
Connolly lifted his camera to his hip, pointed it toward the man and without even looking through the viewfinder, clicked off five or six shots.

Connolly would repeat that action 32,000 more times during his travels, creating a diverse portfolio of individuals from a broad assortment of countries. He posted some of these images online, under the title "The Rolling Exhibition."

What he captured was a paradigm shift, turning the watchers into the watched. In the process he discovered something about them -- and himself.

"While these people have, on the surface, an expression of pity or sadness or curiosity, looking at the legless guy on a skateboard," he says, "at the same time, they're opening themselves up; they're incredibly vulnerable."

For a photographer that kind of image is the Holy Grail. Connolly, from his unique perspective (he's three feet seven inches tall), seems to have found a way to capture it over and over again using himself as his subjects' focal point.

He explains his technique as not baiting people, but inviting them to look.

"If you were someone on the street," he says, "and I was passing you, my eye line would either be straight ahead, down at the ground, or more often, off in the other way with my head turned so that it would give the viewer full permission to stare without the potential of getting caught."

"Patting a legless guy on the head and telling him that he's really inspirational... is probably the last thing you wanna hear when you're trying to seriously work on a photo project." — Kevin Connolly

While gratifying artistically, it's also an unsettling position for the 22-year-old Montana State photography student. Connolly has spent most of his life shrugging off the perhaps well-intentioned, but ultimately dismissive, stereotypical role of the "inspiring" physically-challenged individual.

"That's just people looking for the easy answers," says Connolly. "So patting a legless guy on the head and telling him that he's really inspirational, and it's so amazing how quick and fast he can get around is probably the last thing you wanna hear when you're trying to seriously work on a photo project."

But Connolly isn't normal. In fact, he lives much more adventurously than many of us. With the exception of his missing legs, due to a random birth defect, the rest of his body is fine, all organs intact and fully functional.

A prosthetics manufacturer created a custom body shoe for him that looks like a leather bowl covered on the outside with a rubber tread for traction. Connolly uses the device to protect and cushion his torso during most of his activities.

Growing up, Connolly says his parents didn't coddle him and raised him like any other outdoor-loving Montana family. They took him camping and hiking. Connolly became an avid rock climber and a champion skier who took a silver medal in the X-Games.

With the prize money he won in that contest, he decided to travel alone throughout Europe and Asia. It was on that journey he began shooting the photos that would become the Rolling Exhibition.

Connolly is a champion skier and avid rock climber.
But Connolly learned something else during his photographic odyssey -- something that raised the issue of identity.

Many of the people he met, it seemed, did not wait for him to explain the reason for the absence of his legs. Instead, they automatically supplied their own narrative, one uniquely suited to their own environment or personal sensibilities.

For example, while traveling in New Zealand a woman asked Connolly if he was the victim of a shark attack. In Romania some thought he was a beggar; at a bar in Montana a man bought him a beer and thanked him for his service, believing Connolly was a wounded veteran of the Iraq War.

Connolly says he learns more from people by not correcting their assumptions.

"On the one hand, it's surreal to have that happen to you and to have that projection put upon you," he says. "But on the other hand, it's a great clue as to what's going on inside someone's head."

He's happy, he says, to be their blank slate, if that's what they need from him -- a point he makes in a striking Internet video he made to promote the Rolling Exhibition.

In it, he walks on his hands onto the middle of a stark white backdrop, his face blurred by the glare of a powerful light, which slowly drops in intensity until his face is revealed.

What it also seems to reveal is that he is a man willing, for a moment at least, to be the object of your gaze, to let you look at what he's missing -- as long as you are willing to let him do the same to you.

Kevin Connolly graduates from college in May and says his next photographic journey could include exploring some of the world's conflict zones.


-Producers: Didrik Johnck, Robert Padavick
-Video editors: Didrik Johnck, Krysten Peek
-Camera: Didrik Johnck
-Additional video and photographs courtesy Kevin Connolly and Fritz Statler

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