Arts Beat

The Lens Stares Back

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Photographer Kevin Connolly is used to people staring at him. The 22-year-old Montana native was born without legs, and he gets around on a skateboard, propelling himself with his hands.

"Before pity, empathy or sympathy, there's a moment of shock and curiosity," Connolly says. "It's mostly just slack-jawed: What's that?"

In 2007, Connolly traveled around the world and took 32,728 pictures of people staring at him. Fifteen of his photos are on display in the Kennedy Center's Hall of States. He calls it "The Rolling Exhibition."

Rich, poor, young and old all stare at Connolly in photos from 15 countries, including Japan, France and Malaysia. In Romania, a man in religious garb chats on a cellphone and looks at Connolly with a confused expression. In the Czech Republic, two castle guards in light blue uniforms march at attention, looking straight ahead. Connolly's camera catches a third guard's eyes glance downward at him, a moment of curiosity trumping his orders.

To make people feel comfortable staring at him, Connolly held the camera near his hip and looked in the opposite direction. That way, people wouldn't fear getting caught. Because he was unable to use the camera's viewfinder, he memorized how to frame shots from his street-level perspective. He shot most of the photos while in motion; thus, "The Rolling Exhibition."

People imagined all kinds of scenarios to explain why there was a man with no legs skateboarding next to them. A little boy in New Zealand asked him if he had been eaten by a shark. Someone in Sarajevo assumed he was a victim of the Balkan war. In his home town, Helena, Mont., a man asked him about Iraq and if he still wore his dog tags. Lots of people tried to give him money, thinking he was a beggar. (Ukrainians were the most aggressive. When Connolly refused their handouts, they shoved cash in his backpack.)

The real story: Doctors told him it's a "sporadic birth defect," which Connolly interprets as they have no idea why he was born without legs.

"My parents made the decision to not put me in a wheelchair or a hospital," he says. "They just took me home."

He wears what he calls a "boot" on the bottom of his torso, which keeps his posture straight and protects him from the ground, like a shoe.

Connolly started riding a skateboard during his freshman year at Montana State University in Bozeman so that he could quickly move from building to building while wearing a backpack. Trying to carry a backpack while in a wheelchair is difficult, he says, but he keeps a wheelchair in his apartment. "It's great for cooking -- rolling around and carrying hot dishes."

He traveled alone for half of his three months abroad for "The Rolling Exhibition." The only snag was when he got hit by a car in Bosnia because of a narrow sidewalk. He fell off his board and bruised his ribs but didn't have to go to the hospital.

Connolly is used to doing things that people might assume he's incapable of. He won a silver medal in the 2007 X Games' monoski event; the money helped finance his trip. But don't act too impressed, says James Joyce, Connolly's film professor at MSU.

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