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In Focus

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News February 2016

Great photography requires a good camera, a keen eye and talented photographers like these to pull those both together

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If a picture really is worth a thousand words, then what’s the value of the person behind the camera telling the story?

Photography is part science and part art, making the person taking the photo every bit as important as the type of camera being used. The talent and skill of the photographer is what helps a photo tell a story or bring out an emotion.

The photographers in this article are talented and skilled, but they also have a story to tell about themselves. Spinal-cord injury and disease (SCI/D) has required them to make a few adjustments to how they work, but their drive, ability and accomplishments know no bounds. 

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Changing Perspectives

Photographer Lawrence Roffee is a man on a mission to change the way people see photos of others with disabilities.

A paraplegic and lower extremity amputee, Roffee is passionate about capturing realistic images of people who have disabilities. The 68-year-old is frustrated so many photos of people with disabilities are patronizing and, even worse, sometimes feature able-bodied models. 

The former executive director for the United States Access Board for more than 20 years, Roffee has been an amateur photographer since his teens, but decided to go pro after retiring in 2008.

Roffee’s photography business (lawrenceroffeephotography.com) is growing with jobs for the travel and hospitality industry and other businesses. However, he’s largely focused on portraits of people who have disabilities. 

“My objective is to show proud, independent, optimistic people comfortable with who they are,” says Roffee.  

The Gaithersburg, Md., resident is currently working on two projects centered on that goal. He’s concentrating on images of everyday disability pride and photographs of people with disabilities who have unusual jobs.


A Lawrence Roffee photo from Gettysburg, Pa.

Roffee’s work to capture disability pride received national attention last summer during a celebration for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

At the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., a showcase of disability pride photographs taken by photographers with disabilities included Roffee’s photos.

Getting those great shots doesn’t require any really special equipment either. Roffee uses standard photography set-ups, but has invested in radio controls for his lights so it’s easier and faster to adjust them. His biggest equipment change has been to a smaller camera, which is just as good as a bigger one and easier to handle.

“My arms have enjoyed using a smaller, lighter camera,” he says, laughing.

Roffee has taught himself a lot about photography, but has also taken online and in-person classes. His suggestion for anyone wanting to get started?

“Find a good course … and a good book. Oh, and take lots of pictures,” he says.

Capturing Emotion

Another photographer who was part of that Kennedy Center exhibit with Roffee was someone who should be familiar to readers of PN and SPORTS ’N SPOKES magazines — Loren Worthington.

Worthington (worthingtonvisuals.com) is a regular contributor of photos to both publications. The 52-year-old living in Phoenix sustained a C-5/6 SCI while sliding into third base during a 1985 baseball game. Worthington taught himself photography about eight years ago as a way to be close to sports.

Using sports as an catalyst for his photography career, Worthington’s portfolio now includes plenty of commercial and lifestyle work. His work has been published in magazines, on websites and in exhibits such as the one with Roffee in Washington, D.C. 

Worthington believes success in photography is a combination of taking a lot of “very, very bad” pictures and hard work. He has also found a unique formula for shooting sports.

“My sports photos are 50% technical and 50% intuition,” he says. “It’s knowing where to be before you need to be there and then trying to capture motion and emotion at the same time. I care more about the expression on the subject than the actual feat they’re performing.”

Being a quadriplegic has required Worthington to take photos a little differently. Since his “trigger finger,” typically the right index finger, is paralyzed, he uses a remote cable that he triggers with his teeth in order to press the shutter button.  

Physical barriers on the ground are sometimes an issue as well. Worthington finds that his wheelchair can limit where he can position himself for a shot, but he maximizes his effectiveness simply by being well prepared.  

However, he believes there are other, more difficult barriers in his professional career.  Worthington says his biggest obstacle is what he perceives as a reluctance to hire people with disabilities to work even at events for people with disabilities.

“People want to promote events and programs for ‘the disabled.’ They want to feel good helping,” Worthington says. “They have no plan to include so many DJs, musicians, artists, and yes, even photographers who could further the cause and do a great job. From the USOC [United States Olympic Committee] down, I don’t see any effort to hire within.”

Stop & Look

Similar to Worthington, Steve Kean (stevekean.com) is also a largely self-taught photographer. The 47-year-old fell in love with cameras when he was 15 years old and had sold his first photo by the time he was 17.

“My first love was the gadget then I slowly found my way to a love for the art of photography and the image,” Kean says.  

Born with spina bifida, Kean’s portfolio includes restaurants, government entities, private and corporate portraits, food photography and more. However, he’s most proud of his recent series “Spina Bifida Front to Back,” which is a series of portraits of people with spina bifida.

Outside of his commercial work, Kean has a passion for doing street and documentary photography, as well as photographing jazz performances and his family. He emphasizes that photography is an art that demands continual study and practice to be your best.

“I [have] spent and continue to spend a lot of time studying and learning the techniques that will help me improve my ability to tell stories,” says Kean, who is also the programs and services coordinator for the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association of Ontario in Toronto.

Among the techniques Kean has worked on to improve his photography are accounting how he shoots photos from his wheelchair, especially with respect to perspective. He doesn’t use adaptive equipment, so to compensate he tries to mix up the perspective of his shots by varying the distance to the subject using zoom lenses and not using a tripod. 

When asked about the effect being a wheelchair user has had on his photography career, Kean is philosophical.

“My wheelchair is just a part of me and my life. Although having to take my time and face an inaccessible world, I have had to stop and look. That has been an indispensable tool,” Kean says. “Stop and look. Nothing is more important, even if you don’t take a single frame.”

Paula Larson is a freelance journalist living in Tacoma, Wash.

 

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