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A legless artist documents the world in 32,000 stares

Tired of gawkers, Kevin Connolly traveled by skateboard, capturing their sheer human curiosity.

By Ray SikorskiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2008

Traveling through 15 countries, Kevin Connolly, who has no legs, discovered that people stare the same everywhere, but what they see may be different. In Ukraine, he was seen as a holy man; in Vienna, a beggar.

Chris Toalson

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A 3-foot-1-inch tall man with no legs propelling himself along by his hands on a skateboard tends to warrant a fair share of attention.

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People stare.

Sometimes they ask questions. Sometimes they make up stories on their own.

Montana State University film student Kevin Connolly relates a story: In a Bozeman grocery store, a young girl the same height as him asked, "Why are you on a skateboard?" Mr. Connolly replied, "Because I have no legs."

"She just stared at me and had the best question I've ever gotten," he says. "'Is it a trick?'"

Connolly assures that it is no trick. He was born without legs.

While the contrast between his own experience and how people see him can make him angry and frustrated, Connolly is sympathetic to people's curiosity; after all, he's a curious person himself. When someone stares, he wants to know why. Finding the answer has become a personal quest.

As a toddler he didn't immediately grasp that he was any different from his sisters or anyone else. When he was older, his parents enrolled him in gymnastics and wrestling, which strengthened his upper body and gave him the ability to flip up onto counters and do handstands. At age 10, he started skiing, using a monoski specially designed for someone like him.

Estela Allen, a photojournalist who has worked with Connolly since he was in junior high, first spotted him aggressively racing down a ski hill. "He has amazing agility, and amazing strength," she says, crediting Connolly's parents for the sense of self and the confidence he gained by getting involved with his body.

Connolly rarely uses his wheelchair, preferring his skateboard. And a pair of jeans-clad prosthetic legs stand in his apartment as a party novelty, unused since age 12.

"People are wanting effectively to put you in stilts," he says. "Why?"

Connolly feels he's just as able-bodied as anyone. But he never quite adjusted to people's stares.

On a European trip last year he got tired of it. In what he admits to being a passive-aggressive response, Connolly looked the other way, held his camera at hip-level, and snapped a starer's photo.

"I wanted to stare back at that guy, to let him know that, 'Yeah, I catch you looking,'" he says. "And the way I did that was with my camera."

Afterward when Connolly looked at the photo, blurred from both the movement of the camera and the movement of the man, he was surprised to find he liked what he saw. And the seed was planted for a major creative project.

The following summer, bolstered by a grant and by winnings from a second-place finish in the X Games monoski-cross – a side-by-side race for disabled skiers, Connolly packed his bag with camera gear, 14 pairs of duct-tape-reinforced gloves, and his skateboard. He then set off on a journey around the world to explore an aspect of human nature on which he held a unique perspective.

• • •

Connolly traveled to 15 countries in three months, from New Zealand to Japan, through Europe, Iceland, and then through America until he was back in Montana. Always shooting from the hip, he would start his days heading away from the sun, rolling through villages, and shooting people as he rolled. He would break for lunch, edit photos in his digital Nikon, and then start rolling back toward his hostel as the sun started to set.