Photographer Without Legs Captures 'One Stare' Born without legs, photographer Kevin Connolly has spent his life with people staring at him. He recently traveled around the world, taking photos of people looking at him. He sums up his collection, "The Rolling Exhibition," as "15 countries, 31 cities, 32,000 photos and one stare."
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Photographer Without Legs Captures 'One Stare'

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Sitting on the subway, walking down the street, glancing into the car next to us at a stoplight, from time to time, almost everybody wonders about the stranger we see before us. What sort of a job does she have? Is the Chinese takeout for his date or his mother? Photographer Kevin Connolly knows that people wonder about him. He was born without legs. He's just over three feet tall and gets around mostly on top of a skateboard.

He travelled through 15 countries in three months to take photos of the people staring and wondering about him, and learned about some of the stories that people made up about him. In some places, they thought he was a beggar, or an Iraq war veteran. His photo project is called "The Rolling Exhibition." It's currently on display at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C. You can see a selection of his photographs at

So, what strangers have you wondered about? And what story did you come up with? What do you think strangers see when they look at you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, And you can join the conversation on our blog at Photographer Kevin Connolly joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Mr. KEVIN CONNOLLY (Photographer, The Rolling Exhibition): Yeah, thanks for having me over.

CONAN: And I guess people have stared at you your whole life.

Mr. CONNOLLY: A couple of times, maybe, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Once or twice.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, seven or eight, I think, was the most common count.

CONAN: And I gather this project started when you were in Vienna.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah. The first photograph that I took was at the end of November in 2006 in Vienna, Austria. And really, the first shot was taken somewhat on a lark. I'd been travelling around by myself for the past - oh, about a week or so, and it had come down to, you know, due to kind of both language barriers and me being, you know, a little strange-looking. You know, my only real human interactions was either, you know, the subject of these projected narratives - I was either a beggar or a holy man, most commonly, between Ukraine and Austria, where I was travelling - or it was just these kind of rampant stares.

And it's something, you know, of course, I've been subjected to my whole life, although "subjected," I think might be a little bit too much harsh of a word. But when you're travelling by yourself, of course, you know, you feel it all that much more. And I was travelling down this backstreet of Vienna, and knew this man was coming the other direction, and looked the other way. Because we've all done this at some point or another, in which, you know, we'll be staring at someone and, you know, they're not aware of it. But the second they catch you, you know, you try and avert your eyes anywhere else.

CONAN: You get self-conscious.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah. So I stared across the street kind of giving this man tacit permission to, you know, take a look, and snapped his photo. I snapped it without looking through the viewfinder and I was just holding it from my hip. And thankfully, that first photo came out really well. I got back to my hostel and there was some really cool things going on aesthetically within the photo.

And so, for the next three weeks or so, I travelled around throughout Europe and the East Coast of the United States taking these photographs. And initially it was just kind of a half-developed project, but more importantly, it just gave my hands something to do while travelling by myself. So, got back to the United States and had about 1200 photographs which formed the skeletal prototype of "The Rolling Exhibition."

CONAN: What's it like to be mistaken for a holy man?

Mr. CONNOLLY: I wouldn't say ego-stroking ever, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONNOLLY: Actually no, it was probably the most - it was the most surreal situation. I was on a Ukrainian subway, and you know, I was with my friend who I'd met when I was 18. He's a native Ukrainian. His name is Serge (ph). And we're travelling along, and this woman came up, and she began blessing me in Yiddish, pushing her hand down on my head.

And you know, kind of just due to my height and how crowded the subway was at the time, you know, I actually ended up having my head kind of nestled in this bunch of Ukrainian butts. They kind of formed a little bit of a helmet as this woman's screaming blessings at me. And I think it was at that point when I began to realize, you know, how surreal and how strong some of these projected narratives could be.

CONAN: And what are some of the others? You mentioned beggar, and I guess people see somebody without legs, in some parts of the world, they assume there's a cup there they should put some money in.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, I think so. I think that, you know, the reason they assumed I was a beggar was for a number of reasons. One of the first, I think, being, is that, you know, there's certain kind of accepted archetypes that we think of when we think of someone disabled, and certainly none of those is on a skateboard. A wheelchair would be the most common for someone like myself. And so, to see someone on a skateboard, you might assume that, you know, he might not have the means to acquire a wheelchair.

And so, you know, as a result of that, I ended up getting quite a bit of money, and the reason, you know - even despite saying, you know, no, I don't need any, and you know, I was well-dressed, shaven, carrying a reasonable expensive camera, and it was kind of due to those elements and having money - despite my objections - physically pushed in my hands and my backpack, that I kind of came to realize that, in many ways, they might be trying to explain me away as much for their own kind of sanity as for mine.

CONAN: And again, the people in this country who mistake you for an Iraq war veteran, I guess that seems like a logical explanation.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, and I think that there's something really amazing in it, in that, you know, I was also assumed to be, when I was in Bosnia, you know, a veteran or victim of the Balkan wars. And you know, if you compare those two instances together, it shows a little bit of nuance from country to country in terms of how we form our narratives. I would never be, you know, assumed to be a victim of the Balkan War here in the United States just as, vice versa, in Bosnia.

CONAN: You would never have been assumed to have been an Iraq war veteran.


CONAN: And I understand it must have been a little uncomfortable for you in Bosnia, in Sarajevo, in that situation.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, and really, I think, Sarajevo is kind of the - where I really realized the heart of the series was, and that was these stories. And I guess the reason that it really hit me in Sarajevo, of all places, was that, you know, you get this variety of stories, you know, you're a car accident victim, or you're a shark attack victim.

CONAN: I wouldn't have - yeah, sure, shark, OK.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Well, it was a little boy, actually, that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONNOLLY: He was in a grocery store in New Zealand, and he started to try and get out the words, was he eaten by a shark? And you know, his mom was standing in line at the grocery store, and I'm sure there's a number of mothers out there who have done this, where, you know, the kid starts to ask a question just a little too loud, you know, and you start getting a little flushed and you cup their mouths. So he only got about half the question out.

CONAN: Kids ask really interesting questions.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think one of the best was - I was in Bozeman, which is where I've been going to school for the past couple of years, and I was in a grocery store and this little girl came up to me in a summer dress, and she just walked up, and she was like, is it a trick?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONNOLLY: And you know, I had just shaved my head. I had been skateboarding around town. So here's this sweaty, reasonably bulky guy on a skateboard sitting eye-to-eye with this little girl in a summer dress, and she's being just as assertive as I could ever be. And so I end up, you know, getting a little riled up. I'm like, no, it's not a trick! There's no smoke or mirrors. And she looked down at - I wear a shoe, kind of, with a Birkenstock sole and a leather exterior around myself to just kind of protect me when I'm running around, and she looked at it, and she was like, take off the tire. It was like a really funny kind of confrontational moment there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I understand somebody once walked away with your shoe.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah! I was told, anyway. I went out skiing one day and I stuffed my shoe underneath a bench in the ski lodge, and got back, and sure enough, it was gone. And I was scared. It's not something that you can pick up at Payless, this shoe, and I was getting ready to head out to New Zealand, so to try and find a replacement would have been difficult in the best of situations.

And ran around putting up signs, being, like, you know, you stole this guy's shoe, and please give it back. He can't really get around too well without it. And talked to one of the ladies who was cleaning at the time, cleaning the lodge, and she said there were two middle-aged women who had been sitting down and they pulled the shoe out and they were looking at it. And she heard that they'd considered making it into a flower pot, as it was quite pretty and vaguely in a pot shape. So, you know, it was returned later that night, anonymously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONNOLLY: But yeah, it was certainly...

CONAN: So, you not only get mistaken for all kinds of things. People make up narratives about your shoe.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Oh, yeah. Well, and I - I think that's a reasonable thing to do. I mean, a lot of the stuff I use and do is just so, for lack of a better word, weird-looking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. What do you - narratives do you make up about strangers? What narrative do you think strangers make up about you? 800-989-8255. Email is Toms on the line from Rochester, New York.

TOM (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TOM: Yeah, I - talking to your screener, I'm handsome, and I think that people look at attractive people - I've heard this in studies - and say, gosh, they must a have a great social life or great sex life. Life is totally easy for them, if you appear to be in shape, whether you keep yourself in shape or not. And they just assume all these things. And I've got health problems like everyone else, and I've got family problems and money problems, and interested to hear your response to that.

CONAN: Hm. Is that a narrative that has occurred to you, Kevin Connolly?

Mr. CONNOLLY: You know, as far as the difference that people project from what appears to be on the surface versus what's actually going on, yeah, I think, absolutely, and I think that, you know, anyone, you know, whether or not they're the subject of these prolonged looks, and you know, certainly people are. Anyone who sits kind of out of what any individual would consider to be the aesthetic norm, you know, we're all culpable of doing these things. We're all culpable of staring and making up these stories. It's the sole reason why, you know, a filmmaker or a writer can actually eat at the end of the day. It's just something that we do as human beings.

TOM: Can I ask you a question?

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yes, sir.

TOM: I have 12-year-old twins, and I try to tell them, I mean, it's interesting, so I said, don't stare, you know, you're going to take two looks, and I often try to do it, if the time is right, to have them engage the person and introduce themselves, and if they feel like talking about whatever the condition is, especially my daughter who is very empathetic. Do you feel uncomfortable when people engage? Or I find, often, people are just relieved, you know, not always, but often are relieved to have someone actually be interested in their condition or whatever.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think you're right on in that respect, in that, you know, this storytelling, you know, impulse, and also the impulse to kind of stare and have your curiosity satisfied, is very human. And so, to try and suppress that is kind of, you know, counteracts whatever you're doing. And so, yeah, to be forthright and honest about, you know, something you want to know, I think, is a perfectly good thing to do. And you know, who knows? You might spark a dialogue and maybe make a friend out of the deal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: Oftentimes I do. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Tom.

Mr. CONNOLLY: No sweat.

CONAN: We're talking with Kevin Connolly, who was born without legs, and visited 31 cities and 15 countries taking photographs of people looking at him, and the exhibit is at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's get Jenna (ph) - is that right?

GINA (Caller): Gina.

CONAN: Gina from San Jose, California. Go ahead. Gina.

GINA: Yes, hi, thank you for taking my call. My brother, who is now 30 years old, is autistic, and when I was a child and growing up, my brother would often have outbursts in public places, and - like the mall or a restaurant or someplace like that. And you know, I grew up being stared at. And as a child you develop kind of - I don't know - kind of like an animosity towards people who are staring at your sibling.

We had people come up to us and say, you know, are you abusing that child? You know, things like that, and it was just really hard. It got to a point where, as a kid, I would say things like, well, he's for sale if you want him, you know? I mean, I was just - it just - you develop these really interesting defense mechanisms, and you know, these interesting...

CONAN: It sounds...

GINA: Go ahead.

CONAN: It sounds like, Gina, as a kid, were you mortified to attract this attention?

GINA: More when I was in, like, junior high, you know, when I was in that real awkward phase. I was very, very mortified. But as a younger child, it just seemed normal to me, because I didn't know any better. But I didn't understand why people were staring until I got older, and then, when I moved out of my house, my parents' house, and I realized what it was like to not live with someone who was autistic, that attracted attention, it was quite an eye-opener for me. I mean, it was a huge paradigm shift in my reality.

CONAN: I wonder, Kevin, did you go through that awkward phase?

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah. I mean, I was concerned about anything that I think, you know, a standard middle-schooler would be as well. I think, to a certain extent, it might be a phase of life. I was worried about the no-legged thing. Trying to go to a school dance was always a little difficult.

CONAN: I can see that.

Mr. CONNOLLY: But you know, also, like, you know, acne and being inarticulate and little overweight, you know, all those things added up, and was just kind of, personally for me, was just part of my insecurities going through middle school.

CONAN: Well, Gina, thanks very much for the phone call.

GINA: Thank very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Bye, Gina.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Amanda, Amanda's calling us from San Francisco.

AMANDA (Caller): Hi, thanks. Yeah, I - when I was in my 20s I lived in Utah and I decided - and this was, like, early 1990, and I put a fake nose ring in, and the response that I got was so incredibly negative. I would have security guards following me around, accused of changing prices on things that were actually on sale. And I even had somebody chase me down in a car and get out and yell at me about being on welfare, and he was tired of paying of me being on welfare. And I was actually an honors student in college.

So that was pretty shocking, and I decided I needed to get my nose actually pierced, because I wanted to know the truth of people and how they judge based on the surface. And so, I also really want to honor the inspiration of your attitude that you're bringing to this subject and making it open and inviting people to explore their own biases and how they see others and themselves. Thank you so much.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, well, thank you, and I mean, congrats on getting the nose piercing. That's absolutely awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMANDA: Well, thanks.

CONAN: It's a little less unusual in San Francisco.

AMANDA: Well, completely, and I actually don't have it pierced anymore, because my body doesn't like the metal, but yeah, it's - I mean, you can pierce anything out here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Amanda. We'll leave it right there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMANDA: All right, thank you.

CONAN: Bye. And Kevin, where are you going next?

Mr. CONNOLLY: Oh, jeez, well, in the near future, hopefully, I'll be going home to have a nap at some point. It's a bit of a long day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONNOLLY: Then, you know, I think I'm going to back to Montana for the next three weeks, and after that, going to work on a documentary about artists performing at the Olympics and Paralympics. So I'll be bouncing around the world again, going to China, India, South Africa and England. A short leap thereafter, moving to New Zealand.

CONAN: Moving to New Zealand?

Mr. CONNOLLY: I'm moving to New Zealand. I'm going to get an apartment on the beach.

CONAN: Sounds like a great idea.

Mr. CONNOLLY: That's the post graduate present.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's the post - well, congratulations.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: Kevin Connolly is a recent graduate of Montana State University. His exhibition, "The Rolling Exhibition," is on display at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. You can see selected photographs at our website, He was with us here in Studio 3A. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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