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Shooting From the Hip

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Born without legs, Montana author and photographer Kevin Michael Connolly is used to all eyes being on him. In his latest project, though, Connolly turns the focus on others around the world who have invented ingenious contraptions to get around.

Kevin Michael Connolly resists being called disabled. Born without legs, the Bozeman, Mont., photographer and author has traveled around the globe, is a competitive skier, has had his photos exhibited around the world -- including the Smithsonian -- and is at work on his second book.

He resists being called inspirational, too. Since he's never had legs, he says, he's never had to overcome losing them.

Still, his accomplishments are mind-blowing. Outside magazine, in its November edition, calls Connolly "the baddest 3-foot guy in the world." For good reason. In his Rolling Exhibition, Connolly, 25, a former Montana State University photography and film student, traveled the world photographing the stares of people shocked to see him getting around on his skateboard. His memoir Double Take chronicles his life and photography.

Now he's at work on a new book and photo project taking him around the world, with a new means of transportation, a bouncy gadget he calls cheetah legs.

Can you talk a little about this next project?

I'm basically going around the world and trying to find other people who have made really interesting adaptations outside of the kind of Western medical infrastructure a lot of us deal with. Especially from the experience I have had traveling abroad, you really get the sense that this is more prevalent in developing countries than it is in Western ones.

The need is also greater, because there's less funding, there's less governmental infrastructure, there's less access to medical infrastructure. So that is going to be the next project. In many ways it's the inverse of the Rolling Exhibition: focusing on people who get stared at, maybe because of their interesting adaptations. We have locations like India, Congo, Haiti, Russia, Brazil.

But this is not just an exhibit. This is a book project.

I'm pitching a book, but it's also going to be delivered through a photo series. So you have portraits of the people who created these interesting adaptations interspersed between each chapter that would otherwise be a massive travelogue. I'm trying to keep the photo project moving simultaneously as well as write about it as well as chronicle other people's inventions. It's a bit daunting.

So how did your new cheetah legs come about?

Trying to profile people in developing countries, I realized I had to have something that could take me off the sidewalk, right? The skateboard, despite all its practicality, is limited to the ground rolling beneath it. I found that I needed something that is going to allow me to ambulate without having to deal with pavement.

If people stare at you on a skateboard, they must really stare at you on cheetah legs.

Yeah, if I'm in Saudi Arabia or Haiti, I think I'll get a few stares on this next project.

When you look at the Rolling Exhibition photos, what do you see in the faces of the people staring at you?

It's tough. Curiosity feels too simplistic. Pitying and sympathy feel maybe too specific. Maybe the best way to put it is, people really trying desperately to process information.

When I look at the photos in Double Take, I see a kind of universality in the reaction. Yet in the book you describe very different reactions wherever you go. What did you find in your traveling experience?

There's two planks to this project. One is that everybody stares and everybody is going to have that knee-jerk reaction. The second plank is that, regardless of all that, the second you see something that's going to spark your curiosity that much, you're generally going to try to build a narrative as to why that happened. That manifests itself in different ways.

Generally, they fit in line with either that person or that person's cultural idea of how a person might have come to not have legs. To contextualize. In urban areas, most people tend to think it's a car accident. I was asked if it was a shark attack in New Zealand. I highly doubt someone would ask that question in Colorado. In Montana, eight weeks before I had been asked about the Balkan conflict in Sarajevo, I was asked if I still wear my dog tags from Iraq.

You can tell between those two examples, there's no way they would have been interchanged in location. While the first platform of this is very general, the second platform is very specific in terms of how a local culture or geographic place interprets disability.

How did you take those photos for the Rolling Exhibition?

From the hip.

It seems like most people weren't aware that their photos were being taken.

The idea is that we all stare at people, right? I don't care who you are. Generally, we only do it as long as we know we're not going to get caught. I was always looking over my left shoulder because my camera was always pointed at my right. That's what allowed me to take these unassuming photographs of people staring.

Is it a different experience for you now, shifting the focus away from yourself to other people?

I'm really glad for it, to be honest.

Given your own resistance to being called an inspiration, did you find some of these other people you're documenting inspirational?

A bit. One of the things I've come to realize is inspiration has very little to do with the creator of whatever is creating that inspiration. It's all our own individual choice to find inspiration in whatever we choose. I've come to reconcile the fact that if somebody finds me an inspiration, I'm OK with that. I'm not going to try to foist it on others.

David Frey writes in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Follow him at www.davidmfrey.com.