June 6, 2008
Photographer Kevin Connolly, who was born without legs, prefers to use a skateboard rather than a wheelchair.
A recent graduate of Montana State University, the charismatic 22 year old greeted me with a smile and a firm handshake when I arrived at the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater Monday. He was there to speak about his first professional photography exhibition, “The Rolling Exhibition,” currently on view at the Kennedy Center.
Kevin described the project in blunt terms: “A no-legged guy rolled around the world and got stared at.” The genesis of his work is rooted in his passion for travel and his need for easy mobility. On a recent trip, Kevin shot thousands of pictures of the people who stared at him as he rolled by on his skateboard, snapping images in rapid succession from a camera at his hip, while he looked the other way.
Growing up in Helena, Montana, Kevin rarely used a wheelchair, preferring to walk on his hands. He’s tried gymnastics, wrestling and become an accomplished skier (on a specially designed monoski). It was while he was hitchhiking in New Zealand that he discovered the skateboard as a handy traveling vehicle (People wouldn’t pick up a guy in a wheelchair, he said). He continued his travels through Europe, shooting more conventional travel pictures for class photography projects.
But the concept for “The Rolling Exhibition” evolved from a single shot he took on a street in Vienna of a man looking down at him as he rolled by on the skateboard. He became fascinated by the stares, and after his return to the United States, started planning another whirlwind trip specifically to photograph those inquisitive glances (ultimately taking more than 32,000 shots in 15 countries).
The scene above of a priest in Romania pausing during his cell phone conversation, is one of the photographer’s favorites. Kevin isn’t scolding. To him, the stare represents natural curiosity. “Everyone, including myself, could have been a subject,” he says. He’s more interested in the stories people imagine and project on somebody who is different. They vary from country to country, depending on context and personal experience, he says.
In New Zealand, a boy wondered if his legs had been eaten by a shark. In Bosnia, people assumed he had stepped on a land mine. In Kiev, he was taken for a beggar, and when he refused to take money, bills were stuffed into his backpack. In big cities, people thought he must have gotten into a car accident. And back home, a man with a son in the military hailed Kevin for his service in Iraq.
A born storyteller, Kevin punctuated his philosophical musings with zany experiences from the road, from getting in a bar fight with a midget to receiving an accordion from the former Miss New Zealand as a gift of gratitude for babysitting her eight children.
“The Rolling Exhibition” is at the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States through July 20.
(Photographs courtesy of Kevin Connolly.)
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