Holding Up a Mirror to The Stare

10 years ago

"A camera gives you a reason to stare."

--John Running, American photographer

I was born with a Hemangioma, which is basically a benign tumor made up of blood vessels. Some, like Gorbachev’s famous mark, are less obvious. Some, like mine, are hard to ignore. Located on my right cheek, just under my eye, it takes up a fourth of my face. For the first 21 years of my life, I had 25+ surgeries to correct it though, for the most part, I have always led a normal life.

Except when it comes to photographs. I don’t mind having my photo taken, in fact, I’m quite the ham, I just don’t ever want to see the results. When I see myself in a photograph, I always have the same reaction, “DAMMIT. I coulda sworn I was hotter. Oh well.” I completely forget about this until the next photo opp - god bless short term memory loss!

Ultimately, it was this fear that led me to taking photos of others, so that I would be conveniently absent when the prints were developed. Hence, my interest in photography is directly related to my birth defect.

As with anyone who looks different, there is interest from others; people stare. They seemingly can’t help it and often don’t realize they are doing it. Almost like when a man is talking to you and staring at your breasts and doesn’t think you see him. It’s somewhat delusional, actually.

It doesn’t happen as much anymore but I recall the feeling of that unwanted attention. I remember those stares, how they looked and what was in them. It was one part concern, one part fear and one part imagination. People would make up stories to themselves about what could have possibly happened – car accident, acid attack, fire, sharks – whatever they could think of. The real answer was always a let down: “I was just born that way.”

This is not what people want to hear; they want reasons for things and they certainly don’t want to hear about the unexplainable. (Add to this that the medical community still has no idea why Hemangiomas occur and that really confounds the masses.) People want structure and explanation, even if it’s tragic. Digging deep here, it makes people uncomfortable as it is another reminder that there is really no order or justice when it comes to biology, just the occasional bits of bad luck.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this until I came across a series by photographer Kevin Connolly. Kevin, who studies photography and film in Montana, was born without legs. No reason, he just doesn’t have ‘em. He gets around on a skateboard and does just fine. In fact, he’s also a professional skier, so there. Still, he gets a lot of stares and, lately, a lot of folks asking about his tour in Iraq and assuming that he’d lost his limbs in the war.

Kevin started thinking about this need of others to provide a narrative for his condition. The more he pondered it, the more he recognized it in the faces of the everyday stares. So, Kevin did what any photographer would do, he took their picture.

The resulting series,“The Rolling Exhibition.”, shows people staring at Kevin, wondering what the hell happened to him. Since he’s on the skateboard, most of the faces are looking down at him. Most are blasé, some are scared but most have some sense of empathy. We’ve all felt it and I've certainly seen it - something in us that says, “Man, I couldn’t live like that. I just couldn’t do it.”

“Everyone tries to create a story in their heads to explain the things that baffle them. For the same reason we want to know how a magic trick works, or how mystery novel ends, we want to know how someone different, strange, or disfigured came to be as they are. Everyone does it. It's natural. It's curiosity. But before any of us can ponder or speculate - we react. We stare. Whether it is a glance or a neck twisting ogle, we look at that which does not seem to fit in our day to day lives. It is that one instant of unabashed curiosity - more reflex than conscious action - that makes us who we are and has been one of my goals to capture over the past year.”

--Kevin Connolly, photographer, in his artist’s statement

The Rolling Exhibition will mostly be touring in Montana though it will also be coming to Washington DC on June 22. For more information, check out his site.

Also, please enjoy the work of these talented folks:

Marta Barcel lives just outside Barcelona with her husband and three kids and when she's not taking care of them, does amazing things with light. Beautiful stuff.

If you are into shots of urban decay - and really, who isn't? - you'll need to bookmark Charles Bodi's site, Ride My Pony. I especially dig his tractor series.

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