Man Without Legs Harnesses Public Gaze

Being Stared At

As a Montana State University student, Connolly seized the opportunity to study abroad and travel. With his skateboard, he used his time in an exchange program in New Zealand to explore the country on his own, staying in youth hostels. Money he won in the X Games helped finance more travel in Europe.

If you can imagine the reaction to Connolly, roaming through a new city on his skateboard, in a way, that was what led to an extraordinary collection of photographic work that began on the spur of the moment in Vienna, Austria.

"I was rolling down a street in Vienna, and had just left New Zealand, and was a bit bummed out," Connolly said. "I hadn't seen my family in about a year, and I'd left a whole group of friends behind. And so, I was by myself, having to deal with stares. … I was just kind of sick of being stared at, and I was looking back with my lens."

He snapped a photograph of a man staring at him. He liked it, and he began to routinely take pictures of people staring as he rolled by on his skateboard. He holds his camera low, around the edge of the skateboard. The camera is attached to his wrist by a buckle. He aims the lens instinctively, because he can't look through the viewfinder from such a near-to-the-street position.

The photographs Connolly captures illustrate, in its many forms, the compulsive curiosity that, in an instant, can pull people out of their everyday situations to stare.

Shifting the Public Gaze

"I do the same thing," said Connolly. "I'm not above that, by any means. And if I saw a no-legged guy in the street — hell, yes, I would stare."

People not only stared at him, but from culture to culture, they made up their own narratives about who he was. In the Ukraine, people thought he was a beggar.

"They would stick money into my hands or backpack. And that's where the seed of the idea started to come — people really need to be able to tell a story, to be able to place you in a context within their own world. The narratives … change from country to country," Connolly said. "They can be completely different from place to place."

He was also mistaken for a holy man and a member of a carnival act. In Romania, some thought he was a gypsy. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, he said, there was a sadness to the narratives people invented when they saw him, in a country where the sight of war victims is still all too common. Many people assumed he had been injured by a bomb when he was a child, during the fierce fighting of the mid-1990s.

"That was … tough … that week in Sarajevo," said Connolly. "I was capitalizing on this urge for people to make up narratives in their head. And I was unearthing this history that, in some ways, I wasn't sure if I had a right to."

When he finally returned to Montana in August 2007, Connolly was mistaken for an Iraq War veteran.

What he had collected, by his senior year, were more than 32,000 photographs, and an abundance of memories, as he moved through a world of changing cultures and shifting impressions, where the truth is the most direct narrative of all. He is an accomplished, adventurous man, who was born without legs.

Challenging Common Assumptions

Connolly is motivated to continue at warp speed, because he isn't sure how long he will be as physically fit as he is.

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