Much of the time living with a disability is a big fat bother. But there are moments touched with magic. Like the early evening I was out taking self portraits for the photographic essay workshop David Alan Harvey and Jim Nachtwey were co-teaching during the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago.
I had turned the dial to self-timer, pressed the shutter release button and lowered my camera down to the red brick pavement. The light was good and I intended to get a shot of me riding my scooter up the hill in this quaint Virginia town. Knowing I only had ten seconds before the shutter would release, I pulled my scooter accelerator lever down hard.
As if a noose had tightened around my neck, I was yanked towards the left wheel of my scooter and thrown to the ground. I immediately knew what had happened because I’d experienced it once before: the long end of my neck scarf had gotten caught under the wheel. Whenever this happens I remember the famous dancer Isadora Duncan who had died like this in 1927, but she was riding in a sports car not a scooter.
I heard myself cry out in pain. Two men came running over to help. I calmly instructed them on how best to lift me back into my scooter seat: “Stand behind me, put your hands under my armpits and lift me up until I’m standing upright. Keep holding tight because I can’t walk on my own, then swing me over into the seat of my scooter.”
The fellow was strong so the lift went smoothly. His friend saw my camera on the pavement and brought it over to me. I thanked them and they walked away.
It was only then that my brain kicked in. Could I have captured the fall with my camera? I caught my lower lip in my teeth and quickly hit the playback button. There on the LCD screen was my body lying on the pavement, partially obscured by the rear wheels of my scooter. My mouth was open in a cry. I was in clear focus with the foreground blurred and the whole frame perfectly composed. As if it had been set up.
I was so excited I had to share it with someone. My “lifter” was talking on his cell phone in front of a nearby restaurant. I scooted up and showed him the picture, but he didn’t seem to understand. I didn’t want to bother him so I smiled and scooted down to the pedestrian mall. Earlier I’d seen a classmate about a block away with his camera gear slung around his neck. I soon found him again. “Montie, Montie, you’ve GOT to see this!” He understood.
When I showed the picture and told the story to David, Jim and the class during our daily critique the next morning, David, who had been mentoring me on my self portrait project for a year, let out a loud “Whoop!” and came over to give me a congratulatory kiss. Yes, my ribs were a bit sore and I had a small scrape on my knee and big toe, but that was nothing. Of the thousands of self portraits I'd taken since starting this project on June 11, 2008, this was the first and only truly authentic photo I’d ever taken. All the others, although reflective of my lived reality, had been consciously set up in one way or another.
I’ll always think of this as the best fall of my life.