Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

People Are Curious November 27, 2007 by Suzi Taylor • Published 11/27/07

Kevin Connolly's worldwide journey inspires photos, images and understanding
In many ways, Kevin Connolly appears to be your typical American college student. He skis. He skateboards. He likes to kick back with friends and have a beer. He loves to travel, and is usually planning his next trip before he's finished the last.

MSU student Kevin Connolly was born without legs, but with an abundance of talent that is already taking him places. (Photo: Chris Toalson)
MSU student Kevin Connolly was born without legs, but with an abundance of talent that is already taking him places.

Yet, Kevin Connolly is not typical. He earned a silver medal in skiing at the X Games, widely considered the pinnacle of extreme sports competitions. He's an avid reader, devouring everything from the biography of Stanley Kubrick to "100 Years of Solitude." At the ripe age of 22, he's been around the world twice, most recently visiting 31 cities in 15 different countries during the summer of 2007. And, Connolly, a senior in media and theater arts, is already a prolific photographer with a professional body of work and a calendar beginning to fill with gallery shows and speaking engagements.

There's something else that distinguishes Connolly, or, as he himself puts it, "The no legs thing."

Connolly was born without legs. There's no explanation for it other than "sporadic birth defect." Sure, Connolly says, something like shark attack or mortar explosion are much more dramatic; people often ask if he's been in a car accident or had an amputation.

"For someone seeing me for the first time, all of these stories are equally plausible," said Connolly, who, after a lifetime of observing reactions, has come to accept surprise. But his growing interest in art and self-expression led him to want to document the reaction as a mirror of a more universal truth: mankind's need to invent stories for things that may not make sense.

"The larger question is: Why do we feel the need to craft a story for someone that seems different?" Connolly asks.

The journey to answer that question-or at least capture the seeds that lead to thoughtful discussion-took Connolly from his hometown of Helena to Asia, to Europe and points in between, over 11 weeks during his summer break. Traveling on a student fare airline ticket funded by his X Games winnings, his goal was to develop a portfolio of work he began in 2006, a photo series called "The Rolling Exhibition."

Shooting from the hip

Connolly travels by skateboard, propelling himself with his arms. To build his photo collection, he positions his digital Nikon at his hip, and shoots passers-by from ground level, which sometimes means dodging moving traffic. He doesn't look through the viewfinder but relies on instinct and practice to frame the images. The shots are mysterious and thought provoking.

A few people offered him money. Some thought he was a holy man. Others simply avoided him, and some openly asked for an explanation.

His collection includes children, workers, beggars, cops, lovers. Nearly all of them are strangers. Connolly says he seeks to capture the moment of uncertainty when a person sees another person with no legs, a skateboard and a camera, and tries to make some sense out of it.

"It's about people," Connolly said of his work. "There's a moment when people look, and you can tell they're trying to get a story."

Photography is a recent undertaking for Connolly, who said he didn't shoot a full roll of film until his first black and white photography class at MSU. He credits his passion for the craft to MSU independent study courses and structured film classes, as well as his appreciation for photographers like Jonas Bendiksen, who photographed Russian "fringe towns" over a seven-year period.

"I really admire people who do more than just observe behind their camera," said Connolly. "To have someone willing to go out in the field and fully immerse themselves in their subjects is a pretty amazing thing."

Straddling a line

Connolly's own immersion began May 21 in Los Angeles, where he spent five days skating and shooting, perfecting the techniques that would carry him over the next two-and-a-half months, but without the added complexity of foreign currencies and electrical outlets.

From L.A., Connolly flew to New Zealand, where he had previously attended the University of Canterbury as an MSU exchange student. Because New Zealand was familiar territory, it was "another stair step to the project." He skated more, worked with his equipment and meditated on the challenges ahead. He read film and theatre theory books to study how people react to those with disabilities and disfigurements. And he began "speculating on how people connect things."

After two weeks in New Zealand, Connolly went to Tokyo, where the wall-to-wall crowds made skating difficult but the people-watching fabulous. The sea of neon lights allowed him to capture moving subjects at night.

A few people offered him money. Some thought he was a holy man. Others simply avoided him, and some openly asked for an explanation.

"I was straddling this line between disabled and not exactly able-bodied; a legless guy on a skateboard carrying this expensive camera added a twist most people couldn't wrap their heads around," Connolly said.

'Every person is potentially a subject, and they're only going to pass you once.'
--Kevin Connolly

From Tokyo, Connolly flew to Malaysia, where recent rains covered Kuala Lumpur in 10 feet of water. Storm vents and irrigation ditches-some 3 feet across and 6 feet deep-made for hazardous skating. Yet, Connolly suspects, the overall lower income of the country made people more apt to talk, to strike up a conversation with someone they assumed to be a beggar or maybe a hard-luck military vet.

"So many people are curious," Connolly said. "They want to know what happened. They imagine any sort of evil, awful thing -- car accident, shark! Often times it will spark a dialogue, they're starting a conversation."

After Malaysia, Connolly traveled to Paris, then to Prague and on to Zurich, visiting small towns in between, and all the while "shooting from the hip" to capture a whopping 32,728 images, which he later pared down to 80.

Though his smile and relaxed attitude belie it, Connolly said he's a worrier, and was fueled throughout his journey by the fear of missing a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

"Every person is potentially a subject, and they're only going to pass you once," he said.

Picture by Kevin Connolly
"Aside from the enjoyment of working on a challenging photo project, I also got the chance to skateboard some pretty crazy locales. Tokyo and Zurich were probably my favorites due to the immaculate sidewalks. However, most of Europe posed a problem that I hadn't considered upon leaving: cobblestones. Those evil little buggers (such as these in Paris, France) tore my skateboard apart and created a terrible racket anytime I would go anywhere. The ones at the bottom of this shot were really just the tip of the iceberg. I've never seen such nasty cobblestones as those in Romania."
--Kevin Connolly

All in a day's work

As the weeks wore on, Connolly fell into a demanding but gratifying routine: Up each day at sunrise, he would skate west with the sun at his back and shoot for about four to five hours, cull through the 300 or so photos while eating lunch, then shoot on the way home as the setting sun lit people's faces.

"By and large I was on the streets all day, every day," Connolly said. "My job was to go see the city. My job was to go see the people."

Connolly said that as the journey progressed, he grew stronger and his skating technique improved, to the point that "I was more willing to shoot in movement, moving traffic. There was lots more risk involved-physical skating. I got better skating with one arm, and with where my camera was in relation to the subject."

Connolly fashioned a way to buckle his camera to his wristwatch, pushing himself "to the extent to where I have to actually bind myself to the camera."

His route was mostly unplanned, though he did try to hit both cities and small towns. From Zurich, Connolly traveled to Croatia where he surreptitiously ended up in the hometown of his mother's family, Bribir. Next, it was on to Bosnia, where Connolly's luck ran thin. In Travnik, a car clipped him as he carried groceries and his camera along a narrow sidewalk. The driver stopped, but Connolly kept going.

"They don't speak English, I don't speak Bosnian, what (were) we going to do?" he said. Connolly said his shoulder was sore and the groceries were destroyed but his camera, encased in rubber armor and attached to his body with a leash, survived intact.

Too far in to bail

It was also in Bosnia ("my favorite country and the centerpiece for me of what was going on,") that Connolly first questioned what he had come to accomplish. In that recently war-torn land, Connolly saw the horror of the conflict projected onto him and he nearly abandoned the project when the gravity of the war hit him full force.

"I was young enough to have been in the conflict," said Connolly. "And I could see that people were under the impression that I had been involved in the conflict and had been hurt or injured in some way.

"I got the impression that I was bringing up memories, kind of unearthing a lot of stuff that people really didn't want to be dealing with all the time. I was trying to understand the stories that people would project on me, trying to figure out what little social cues lend clues to your leglessness. It was just all too close, right there."

Connolly said he struggled internally with both his status as a wealthy-by-world-standards American, and with whether his photos were taking advantage of a society with such raw wounds.

"I'm taking photos, capitalizing literally and figuratively on people's recent trauma," Connolly said. "I was questioning whether the photo project was exploitative or for the better community."

Connolly, alone and deep into the project, said he was overwhelmed with emotion as he wrestled with the impacts of his work. He even went out one day without his camera-a revealing first for an artist with such ambitious daily goals. But, Connolly said, he ended up meeting and talking to some local people, who convinced him to carry on. Plus, he said, his gut told him: "You're too far in now to bail."

Picture by Kevin Connolly
"My poor, poor camera. This shot was taken in moving traffic (in Cluj Napoca, Romania) as were a couple others in the series. The unfortunate thing about shooting in traffic is that when you need to move out of the way, you're not going to have time to put away your camera. More than once I'd punch that poor thing into the asphalt to dodge a bumper or two."
--Kevin Connolly

A journey full circle

Connolly continued on to Romania where, he said, he was struck by the gypsy alms culture that permeates that society. Some entire families are essentially professional beggars, and people are accustomed to giving them alms. Connolly said so many people assumed he was a beggar that they pressed money into his hands before he could respond.

"I went to get a few vegetables at a farmers market, but went out with a full bag of tomatoes, a full bag of onions and 15 lei in Romanian currency just by virtue of walking through there."

Of course, "that never happened in Paris, Tokyo or New York -- I could have really used the money there," he joked.

From Romania, Connolly ventured to Budapest and then Austria. In Vienna, while wandering somewhat aimlessly, he found himself on a small side street -- the very place where he had snapped the first-ever image for "The Rolling Exhibition" series the year before.

After stops in England, Iceland and New York, Connolly finally returned to Montana.

Along the way, he had hitchhiked with strangers, slept in a ditch, and grappled with the realization that women might fear he was shooting up their skirts. He contended with shady characters in Tokyo who directed him to a bar that turned out to be -- shall we say, a house of ill repute, and -- with a helpful toss from a new friend in Romania -- jumped onto a moving train. "Everybody should do it once," he advises.

Stories, images and connections

A journey had come full circle, but the idea of why people are curious remains. Connolly hopes his exhibit prompts those viewing his photos to question their instincts.

"I hope people question themselves: Why do they go about crafting stories for other people? Those stories are never going to go away; the thing that is important is that you interrogate the context in which you're living. You do effectively create your own world because you can only absorb so much information, and the rest you kind of make up and fill in."

"You can't help it," he added. "Those connections are going to spring to life. It's not that you can stop it, but you have to be aware of it, to know where it's coming from."

Connolly has already spoken about his exhibit to his fellow MSU students at an ASMSU event in October, and he hopes to exhibit his work this year around the state and nation.