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Photographer without legs tells life story from ground up

Kevin Connolly caught the attention of the digital world with photos of strangers watching him roll by on a skateboard. Now he looks ahead to a book and life abroad.

At first glance, Kevin Connolly's photographs simply capture random people on random streets around the world. But look again, and it becomes clear his photos tell a much more complex story--the split-second shock and curiosity on strangers' faces when they encounter a man with no legs, gliding past on a skateboard, propelling himself with his hands.

Connolly, 22, was born legless. He has gone from award-winning skier who tears down slopes in his custom-built mono-ski to professional photographer probably best-known for "The Rolling Exhibition," his series of digital photos that show strangers looking at him with expressions ranging from fear to confusion to sympathy. The images have drawn big crowds online.

Kevin Connolly
"The Rolling Exhibition" crew: Kevin Connolly, his Nikon D200, and his skateboard. Chris Toalson

Now, having just graduated from Montana State University in May, the self-proclaimed "camera geek" is looking forward with a move to New Zealand and a book about the exhibit in the works.

"There's a certain shock value in his images, and we are faced with who we are when we look it them," said Dan Wise, an adjunct instructor at Montana State University who taught Connolly the basics of black-and-white analog photography. "That's the power of his photography."

It started two years ago. Traveling in Europe while he studied in New Zealand, Connolly felt the gaze of a passerby, an experience he had become accustomed to throughout his life. But this time he pointed his trusty Nikon D200 digital SLR camera and clicked. He liked the image so much he decided to travel around the world and take more.

Connolly traveled through 15 countries and across the U.S. during the summer of 2007. Getting around on his skateboard, he shot from the hip, literally, only sizing up the photos in his mind, without one glance through the viewfinder. The method was unusual for the photographer, who was accustomed to carefully planning out his shots before snapping.

"The only way I was able to figure out how to effectively shoot from the hip was setting a lot of limits around myself," he explained during a recent phone interview with CNET News.com. "For instance, every single photo in the series is taken off of one focal length--an 18-millimeter Nikkor lens. So I basically was able to memorize the frame line that that would create based on where it was situated on my hip and be able to largely frame up subjects just by feel."

When he returned home to his college town of Bozeman, Mont., he had 32,728 pictures to show for his travels--and was a bit disappointed when a fellow camera lover sent him an article saying Connolly's Nikon model would probably stop functioning after 100,000 to 110,000 pictures.

"To buy a camera and then immediately go out and shoot nearly a third of its life off...for a poor college kid, that was kind of sad," he laughed.

Not to mention the gadget was pretty banged-up.

"The left side of the camera body is actually sheared off about a fourth of inch just by virtue of it being so close to the ground," he said. "It definitely looks a little worse for wear."

Kevin in Tokyo
Connolly took this shot during his first trip to Tokyo. Click on the image to see more photos from "The Rolling Exhibition." Kevin Connolly

Connolly picked out 48 pictures that represented an equal spread of the countries he visited and the people he saw. A user of both Macs and PCs, he utilized Adobe Creative Suite 3 for minor photo touch-ups, like erasing the dust on his lens, which was held close to the ground. However, he left most pictures unedited.

The photographer felt as if his camera caught people at their most vulnerable, as their minds churned to explain his state.

He discovered that when people see him rolling by on his skateboard they want to make up a story for him. According to the artist statement on his Web site, he has been asked if he was a victim of a shark attack or a car accident, or if he was a veteran of the war in Iraq.

"These stories kind of followed me around to all these different places in the world," he said. "The interesting thing is that these stories would always vary with the context in which a person is pulling their information."

In Sarajevo, Bosnia, Connolly saw how context influenced his "story" more than ever. The country's stigma about the Balkan War was reflected back onto Connolly by the strangers who encountered him.

"So many people would assume that I was a victim of mortar or a land mine," he said, "and that assumption was just so much more prevalent and powerful there than anywhere else, that it really began to hit me, the nuance of the series."

Connolly's first showing of "The Rolling Exhibition" drew 600 people. Now, his Web site gets about 1,000 hits a week, but has spiked to as many as 70,000 when his story appears in the media.

"The funny thing is that the studio that designed my Web site is actually a couple of old high school buddies," Connolly said. "We just sat down and drew out basically what we wanted it to look like for this project and then set it up, never with any idea that it would gain this much traffic. It's just been really funny to watch such a small, simply designed site gain so much attention."

Although Connolly never expected such a response, he has no qualms about receiving such a warm reception for his first photo project.

"I think a lot of people are drawn instantly by the look of it and the common thread of curiosity. Some other people, if they dig a little big more might dig on the nuance of these stories that people tell based on their country," he said. "But I think a fair number of people are just sucked in by the logistic craziness of it all--a no-legged guy skating around the world."

Connolly in park
Connolly, a recent graduate of Montana State University, offers rides on his skateboard to fellow park goers in his college town of Bozeman. Sarah Nutsford

As a "no-legged guy," Connolly has found technology at the center of activities he loves. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in media and theater arts, with a focus on film--and he plans to embark soon on a documentary about the Olympics and Para-Olympics. When he wants to take some time away from group projects, he turns to digital photography. And when the digital darkroom gets stuffy, he can take to the road, driving his car with the help of hand controls.

But he also takes to the slopes in Montana, perched on his mono-ski made of fiberglass, plastic, and metal to simulate legs and a single ski. He also uses outriggers to navigate down the slopes. With the help of this mono-ski, Connolly nabbed the silver medal in the 2007 Winter X-Games. At this year's games he overshot his landing at the end of one of the qualifying rounds and broke his mono-ski's frame, so he could not compete.

"He's a way overachiever, which is a good thing. I don't think he has an off button," Connolly's teacher Wise said. "He's incredibly self-motivated. It's hard to say anything about Kevin that hasn't been said. He's inspirational to not only himself but to others."

Despite all his accomplishments, Connolly's goal isn't to be an inspirational story.

"After a couple weeks of press I rang up my dad and was kind of whining about how all these people focused on the inspirational angle or the physical challenge angle instead, and how I didn't want to be thought of as an inspiration," Connolly said. "My dad just kind of laughed and responded, 'It doesn't matter what you think. People are going to take away what they want to take away from it.' I guess my stance is that the only way to continue being an inspiration is to just keep doing what I'm doing."


Kevin Connolly talks shop
Creator of "The Rolling Exhibition" talks with News.com's Holly Jackson about his Nikon D200, how he takes pictures, and how he feels about being viewed as an inspiration.
Download mp3 (3.57MB)