RACHEL MARTIN, host:
We all do it. When we see someone who looks different or strange, we stare. Maybe you do it out of the corner of your eye. Maybe you gawk. Maybe you get nervous and immediately avert your gaze. We stare and we try to figure out how they came to be the way they are, and what that person's life is like.
Kevin Connolly has been getting these kinds stares all his life. He was born without legs, and he moves around on a skateboard to get from place to place. Kevin was used to be stared at in his hometown of Helena, Montana. But on a European trip last year, he got fed up with the looks. So he turned his camera on the people who were staring at him. And the result is a collection of photographs of stares. He calls it "The Rolling Exhibition."
And Kevin Connolly, photographer and student at Montana State University, joins me now. Hey, Kevin.
Mr. KEVIN CONNOLLY (Photographer; Student, Montana State University): Hey, how's it going?
MARTIN: It goes well. Thanks for being here. So you are 22 now. You've endured stares your whole life. What triggered the decision to start photographing this experience?
Mr. CONNOLLY: Well, I did, I guess, get a little fed up with the stares while I was touring in Europe. And the first photo I actually took was in Vienna. But I think the impetus to take the photos actually came from traveling by myself so, of course, you know, kind of having the lonely travel bug a little bit. But more importantly, wherever I'd been going over, you know, the first two weeks of my travel through Vienna and the Ukraine, as well, I was treated like a beggar. So the only real interaction I was having with other people was them trying to foist some money upon me.
Mr. CONNOLLY: So, you know, you'd say no as much as you could, and oftentimes people would just shove it in your hand and walk away. And, you know, looking back on it now and what kind of led me to really start working on the "Rolling Exhibition," is that, you know, in a lot of ways it felt like they were giving me money more to explain me out of, you know, their existence, or explain my existence to them. Right?
Mr. CONNOLLY: You know, the idea of, you know, an American kid traveling through Ukraine or Vienna without legs on a skateboard isn't something that can be explained away very easily. And so I think for some people, the easiest story to tell was simply that I was a beggar.
MARTIN: So describe that first picture, when you decided I'm going to capture what just happened.
Mr. CONNOLLY: I'm a film student and a photo student, graduating in May. And so, you know, of course, traveling through Europe and while I was traveling through New Zealand, as well, I always had a camera in my hands, you know. And a lot of times I was just taking your basic travel log photo stuff to show the family back home. And it just so happened that when I was rolling through the city on that particular moment, I had a camera in my hand. I just hadn't put it back in its bag yet. And so I just kind of snapped the photo on my whim. And, you know, thankfully for me, it turned out really well.
And so when I got back to my hostel, I was able to look at it. And just, you know, being the photo student, my initial reaction was just I really liked the aesthetics of the photo. You know, I liked the low angle, the subject moving, you know, toward the camera, and kind of looking at the photographer, often times not realizing what was going on.
And so the decision came, actually, after that first photo had been taken to pursue the series. And, really, the rest of my travels over that winter was just kind of giving my hands something to do. You know, I'd go out and roll the streets, and I would continue to take some travel log photos, but more importantly, you know, it would just give me something to do when I was by myself, to collect these stares.
MARTIN: I looked at some of your photos, and there's one in particular that stood out to me. It's a man, a soldier, who's walking - he's in uniform, and he's walking in formation. And he's in the corner of the shot looking at you from the corner of his eye, trying not to be obvious.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah.
MARTIN: And it's like your photo just totally calls him out. And it's like catching him in the act. Is that - did you find that empowering?
Mr. CONNOLLY: In a way, I guess.
MARTIN: I mean, it's probably happening so quickly you just take the shot, you don't think about it.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, well, and I think one of the important things is that, you know, it's not - the photo series isn't really antagonistic. I'm not trying to say, you know, I'm firing back at these people with my camera. Because, you know, I'd say I'm just as culpable as the next person who would stare, you know? If I saw a guy with no legs rolling around on the street, yeah, I would stare as well. You know? And the same goes for any number of, you know, other things that would - or other qualities that would make a person pop-out from the norm.
You know, and I think that's one of the beautiful things about the series, is that I wouldn't say it's alienating in any way. It's something that literally everyone would do. And the only individual qualities that come from the series are the stories that often come after the fact that the photo's taken, right? When people start to create the story based on the context of their lives in order to try and explain you within, you know, the environment that you're situated in.
MARTIN: What were some of those stories? I mean, you say the stare is universal. This is something that's part of human nature, as well as creating this narrative about why you are the way you are. Did you hear from people about what their explanations were for your existence? I mean, you were thought to be a beggar in Vienna. Were there other situations?
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah. And, I mean, a lot of it was gleaned from kind of just anecdotal evidence, how someone would react and treat you. And then a lot of it came from questions, you know? When I was in New Zealand, I was at the base of the ski hill, just up there with my friends. And a woman walked up next to me while I was giving him my ski and didn't introduce herself or say hi, she just said thalidomide in a questioning tone. And, you know, I missed the curve of the whole news hoopla of thalidomide causing all the birth defects, so I didn't quite get what it was at first. But that was definitely one of the more blunt questions, or, you know, projections, I guess I got.
Mr. CONNOLLY: You know, some of the more easier ones to grasp, I guess, was one kid in New Zealand thought that I'd been bitten by a shark. You know, I was a beggar in Vienna, and Ukraine, as well, but I was also thought of as a holy man in Ukraine. I was a victim of the Balkan wars when I was in Sarajevo, which was probably the most difficult one to kind of, you know, push through and cope with.
MARTIN: What do you see in these stares? Is it curiosity, fear, pity? All of the above? None of the above?
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, I think so. The thing that I think that I was always the most amazed at is that in that moment, you know, be it curiosity or pity or just plain shock, the subjects are all very vulnerable, right? And their looking at you with the thought that, you know, you're the one who's kind of disadvantaged. But when you look at their faces, it seems like they're the ones that have kind of opened themselves up, if just for a moment. And I was always really impressed, or, like, just really pleased with that.
Getting back to that solider photo that you were talking about, you know, he's pulled out of his uniform for that moment. He's not really a soldier. And that was always the thing that I was most amazed at, was, you know, catching a police officer in New York doing that, you know, or catching some tour guides in Croatia. You know, for that moment they're pulled out of, you know, their own position in life, just 'cause, you know, they're absorbed in what's rolling by them.
MARTIN: Kevin Connolly is a photographer and student at Montana State University. To check out pictures from his "Rolling Exhibition," visit our Web site at npr.org/bryantpark. Thanks, Kevin.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, no sweat.