April 7, 2008

annejpeg.jpg Our guest blogger this week is Anne Keller, an extremely talented photographer, whose work will be showing at this year’s festival. Keller had the honor of accompanying and photographing world-class mountain biker, Tara Llanes, after an accident left Llanes paralyzed.

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There’s a look people give me when I tell them that one of the main reasons I was able to sustain a long term project focusing on such a serious, delicate subject is that; I had a ton of fun.

Yeah yeah, go ahead, make the look. But really, months later, after all the reflection that goes on, that one explanation stands out like a sore thumb. I had days where I laughed harder than I had in a long while.

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I should preface by saying that my previous work had entirely been within the cycling industry, and I had, by no means, any type of photojournalism background or experience. Shooting this project was an emotional and often very trying journey into a place where the nature of capturing a photograph felt both extremely intimate and occasionally invasive. I came to understand more in those four months about knowledge and compassion for a subject than anything had ever taught me. And I can honestly say that my involvement in this was a pivotal point in my direction as a photographer.

But, well, then there was the fun.

Tara once made this statement that she was the same person she was before, just a little shorter. I always liked that statement. And being on the sidelines as entirely well meaning, caring individuals bowed their heads, lowered their voices and offered unsolicited words of somber inspiration, I began to feel bad. I began to understand that maybe the reason people can choose to avoid their friends and families in times of serious illness, injury, etc is that we all have an aversion to sounding like a Hallmark card, we just don’t know how to get beyond it.

It took me awhile too. The first time I found myself openly laughing I probably looked around to make sure no one was watching me. Oh the humanity! Laughing at the disabled! But the more time I spent with Tara, the more I came to believe that, possibly, that was the best thing for her. Because the alternative sounded really depressing; bowing our heads and being somber.

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I remember one night in Denver. Four of us had gone out to dinner and had driven my VW bus. Perfect vehicle for a wheelchair, really. Afterwards, us parked on a busy street, Tara decided to try a new method of transferring to a car seat. A transfer that involved going from the floor, to her knees, to the bench seat. The idea didn’t go so well and Tara ended up in a crumbled heap on the floor of the bus, doubled over, laughing. Bus door wide open, us standing outside grasping for anything to keep us upright we were laughing so hard, Tara’s wheelchair rolling away down the sidewalk, and pedestrians walking by staring in disbelief. Would somebody please help this poor girl and save her from her friends.

Because, really, I think that laughter in a situation that is, by all means, of course, serious, challenges our notions that we must always adhere to treating people with the same seriousness that their condition dictates. Instead, I can only hope that by treating Tara like she still had the capacity to have fun, which she did, we allowed her to exist in a world where she still felt like herself. A world where her every move was not filtered through a reference of dealing with a debilitating injury, where instead she was allowed her humanity.

So, yes, today, after all of it. The emotional rollercoaster that it sometimes was, the strong bond of friendship created, the ups and downs, all of it; I still say, bring on the laughter.

To see more of Anne Keller’s work, please visit: http://www.annekellerphotography.com/

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