To many people, as Kevin Michael Connolly traveled the world, he was many things — most of them not even remotely connected to reality.
"This woman walked up to me, didn't say hello or anything, just said, 'Thalidomide' in a questioning tone," Connolly said.
Then she told him it was a drug that had caused birth defects after it was given to pregnant mothers.
"Was that you?" she asked.
Other people presumed he was a beggar, or even a holy man.
But children were different.
"By and large," said Connolly, "a little kid would look at you and just go, 'Aw, wow.'"
The reality about Connolly is much more remarkable than the scenarios people imagine about him — especially when seen through the art of his camera, from an angle he's known for all 22 years of his life.
"I was born without legs," said Connolly, matter-of-factly. "This is all I've known, and to me, it's not really a big deal. I think it was called a 'sporadic birth defect,' which is basically the doctors saying they don't know what happened."
He often travels by balancing his torso on a skateboard, and moving expertly through the streets of the cities he visits. From the skateboard, he has taken more than 32,000 photos of the stares he attracts. Some are displayed on an Internet site, therollingexhibition.com. They are riveting, sometimes humorous, examples of human nature in different cultures, where, with each stare, people also form quick and even fanciful interpretations of who Connolly is, and why.
Living Without Legs, Without a Wheelchair
Connolly is a senior who studies film and photography at Montana State University. He has short-cropped brown hair, good looks and an affable, open demeanor. His upper torso is fully formed, large-boned, muscular and trim. His internal organs are healthy.
He rejected the prosthetic legs with which he was fitted when he was young, because they were uncomfortable and made it difficult for him to move freely. Instead, he wears what he calls a "boot" to cover his lower body. It is a rounded device that fits perfectly around his lower torso and protects it as he moves.
"The boot is fully custom made and it actually serves two purposes," Connolly said. "One is, it's basically a shoe, you know? You have a Birkenstock sole … and the whole goal is to imitate the practicality of footwear."
It is also a posture-correcting device.
Inside the boot, Connolly has written the words "Do not steal, especially if you're a middle-aged woman." One time, when he left it under a bench to ski, two women mistook it for something they could use as a flower pot and walked off with it.
The freedom that characterizes his life has been a component since the beginning.
"My parents made the decision to not put me in a wheelchair or a hospital. They just took me home."
Family photos from his home in Montana show a young man camping out, rock climbing and skiing so well in his custom rig, that he won a silver medal in the January 2007 X Games.
But not before he flipped down a mountainside once and broke his jaw on an avalanche fence.
"I have a steel plate here," Connolly said, pointing to his left jaw. "So, I can't feel it. It was, I think, seven or eight days before I was scheduled to leave for New Zealand for a year. And so, I postponed it for a couple days, had my jaw wired shut and then went."
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.
"I'm using my arms … about twice as much as anyone else would," Connolly said. "The thing that I use as a motivator a lot of times, is to tell myself that I, maybe, have 10 years before my shoulders and my back go, and I won't be able to do what I'm doing now. The whole idea is really just to keep me moving, so that by the time I'm 30, hopefully, I'm where I want to be in my career, and I've done all these projects that I'm capable of doing now."
He also finds that people are curious about his personal life. He has a girlfriend — someone he met in New Zealand. But he won't elaborate on their relationship.
"The questions people ask me — 'how do you go to the bathroom? … … How do you get up on counters? How do you cook?' — all these things don't really bug me, anymore," Connolly said. "That's largely due to the fact that I'm older, and that that's what I'm capitalizing on in this photography project — utilizing those questions and that curiosity for my own benefit."
In fact, people are welcome to ask all the questions they want about Connolly's adventures. They should also be prepared to ask a few questions of themselves.
"I like making it difficult for people," Connolly said. "I don't want to give people the luxury of staring at someone who's weird — giving a pat on the back for some accomplishment, or for just getting through day to day — and moving on. I don't want to make it that easy for people."
"I think that … the job of any photographer, or anyone who can call themself an artist, is to make people question what they do on reflex … to make people question a value or an idea that's so common, that people haven't really looked at it yet. And so, right now, what I'm standing for … it's that."