Almost five years ago, Nolan Ryan Trowe lost his ability to walk and to function as an able-bodied photographer. He became very aware that, as with most industries, the expectations of a professional photographer are constructed around an able-bodied experience. He asks, “Where does the disabled narrative fit in? How do those stories get told?”
This event is introduced by David Campbell, the managing editor of VII Insider. Then, with his colleague and friend Ashley Gilbertson, Nolan Ryan Trowe discusses working in the industry as a photographer with a disability. Having recently completed the VII Mentor Program, Nolan shows work produced for The New York Times and The Magnum Foundation while explaining why he thinks it is important to produce work that is important to you personally. During the past couple of years, Nolan has turned the camera on himself in order to examine what can be learned by personal narratives.
David Campbell: We try and make these events as interactive as possible, so we really welcome questions from the audience. If you have questions as the conversation is going along please post them in the Q and A section. The chat function is turned off for that So if you have questions put them in the Q and A section which is down in the menu bar at the bottom and we’ll get to those, and sometimes we’ll group those questions together towards the end to get them to either Ash or Nolan. Ash, you’ve got the cigarette going, that means it’s serious time for the conversation so take it away.
Ash Gilbertson: David, thanks a lot we’re stoked to have you at VII. So looking forward to many more good things in the future, thanks for being here and PhotoWings for making all this free. I don’t want to talk too much because you guys have heard all my stuff before. I am absolutely thrilled, Nolan, to have you not just here, like talking today, but in my life. You’re dear, you’ve become a dear friend in a very quick amount of time. You’re a man of deep integrity and you’ve told me a lot about photography and about life. So I’m really, really happy that we can share a little bit of our story together, and I see you very much as a brother in arms in this struggle that we’re in. So I’m giving it to you. We just chat man. You show work, we talk.
Nolan Trowe: Thanks a lot. That means really a lot to me and, you know I told a lot of people this, but you know when I first started really taking photography seriously it was in a class at NYU Tisch and you know when you gave your presentation there, and at that point I didn’t even really know what documentary was or, like, photojournalism for that matter, and after your presentation it just like totally inspired me. I was like, damn I didn’t even know you could do something like this and I didn’t even know it was like a career option.
So, it’s really a big honor for me to be here on VII. And yeah, doing the VII Mentor Program was really amazing because I had a really amazing mentor, Sara Terry, I got to–but I was also encouraged to just, you know, form relationships with with basically anyone in the agency, so like Ash, or Ed Kashi, or Maggie Steber, or you know Philip Blenkinsop, or you know just a ton of people. Jocelyn for sure. So yeah, I just want to take that time to publicly thank VII as an organization for my time in the Mentor Program. It was really transformative.
Ash Gilbertson: You were so clear. You wanted this, like, to be–It’s so funny you say that because it seemed to me when we met at Jeffrey Scales class and NYU, and then when you demand we have coffee, and we did, you seem so absolutely clear, like, this is it. This is what you’re going to do. There’s no question. Like, you went over to Perpignan in France, and you hung out at the VII booth, you helped out, you met Gary, you met Josh, you met Chris, you met everybody. You went after this so hard. And it’s very rare to find people in this industry with that level of passion, but also ability to get off their ass and do it. You know? And you did it, man. You would have gotten to where you are now regardless of me or VII or anybody else like you would have found a way. There’s people–there’s not many people like you out there, but you’re one of them.
Nolan Trowe: Thanks. Naw, it’s…. Yeah, it was — I guess it feels like it was a lot harder than it was. I don’t know, it’s weird, I feel like I busted my ass or grinded a lot, but it never really felt like it because I’ve always liked loved what I’m doing.
So I know you said, like it was clear from the beginning that I wanted to do this, but yeah, I guess I just–Like I said, when I saw you present I didn’t even realize that that was something someone could do, and I always loved photography and just being creative and going out into different places and meeting people. So it just ended up kind of being this organic thing and then you showing me different work and, yeah, just realizing it was something I could do. So yeah, and then–Well I guess I’ll start sharing my screen now, but, just so I can kind of talk about my journey thus far.
Nolan Trowe: So yeah, I guess when you were talking about, like, when I first met you, yeah I had just moved to New York. For everyone listening in, I had a spinal cord injury when I was 22 about to be 23, and that was in 2016. And so I had a spinal cord injury and at first I was paralyzed from the legs down, and basically everyone was telling me that, you know, I’ll never be able to walk again. Like, you know, these kinds of things. And so few months after that I started to be able to move my legs again, and you know, flash forward, 2017, I applied to graduate school at NYU for sociology. Like I never– that’s the other thing, like I never really intended to do anything with photography. It was just something I kind of happened upon when I was in New York.
Because my Masters isn’t an MFA. I got my Masters in sociology, which I think is actually been really helpful in this industry. I think, like yeah you don’t have to have a degree in photography or whatever. In some ways I actually think it is more beneficial if you don’t, because it helps you like think of stories in a more sociological manner versus just like as a strictly visual, or like I don’t know, news thing. It becomes more like a societal, like, the underpinnings of it. I feel like I’m able to kind of get to the anthropological roots of things a lot easier because of that. But yeah, when I met you I was working on–
wait. Okay yeah, I was working on this project, which when I moved to New York I was in this photography class, which is where Ash gave this lecture that like really inspired me. And at the time, it was a photojournalism class with Jeff Scales, who’s the Op Ed editor at the New York Times’s Sunday Times.
And yeah, I met this dude who you’re looking at right now. His name’s Alex and he was my first friend in New York. And when I moved to New York, I was still using my wheelchair pretty much exclusively. I wasn’t really able to really walk much around the city and I was living in a small town before I moved to New York City, so it was like very jarring. But, um, I went to this wheelchair basketball tournament because I had this open assignment. I could shoot whatever I wanted to, and so I wanted to go shoot wheelchair basketball. Because you know I didn’t have–I didn’t know anyone in the city. In California I had had really a strong connection with the disabled community. All my friends were pretty much disabled because you know, after my injury I was in rehab, and just all the people I connected with had disabilities. It was a lot easier because when I would hang out with people who were able-bodied and I was newly disabled so, like, I really needed a community to show me the ropes, you know? And just readjust to life. So when I moved to New York I kind of wanted–I wasn’t actively seeking that, but I guess subconsciously I was.
So yeah, I went to this wheelchair basketball tournament and I met Alex. And he was — He’s like my best friend, pretty much. Like he kind of took me under his wing and showed me the city. He had this, like, accessible van. This BraunAbility accessible van, with–Like, people don’t know it’s like this van that’s, it’s really expensive and it has this ramp so wheelchairs can get in and out of it super easy. And so I was riding the train everywhere, my back would be killing me all the time. And it was just really hard, and he was like, Dude, like why the fuck you taking the subway. Like let’s just go around in the van. And he would take me everywhere. He showed me–
Like, for instance this this picture was taken out in like Jamaica, Queens, which is like really far out. Like, far from Manhattan and far from where I lived. And then, you know, he showed me Harlem, and we went out to Staten Island and The Bronx. It was awesome to just like connect to someone like that. Because, you know, he was raised out here, and he had, like, all these connections, and he knew all the spots, and he really–I mean for this project, like, this was like my first ever like thing I did with photography, was just documenting, like, my daily kind of routine hanging out with Alex. And yeah I think that, you know, it was really nice to have that because in New York City, I feel like it can be such a big lonely place, but– I mean, I eventually called my greater work on New York City, like, “Adopted Family,” because that’s what it felt like. Like I just felt like an adopted son in New York. Like people just took me in like no questions asked. And that meant like so much to me. Just because you know you can live in a city for years and years and never make like one genuine connection with someone. And I was just super fortunate that I happen to meet someone like Alex pretty much, like, three months into me living there. And he just like showed–Like I said, he showed me the whole city. Like, he was–
I mean he just never let anything slow him down, I guess, in a city that was like so inaccessible. You would never know it hanging out with Alex because– He would be on the subway. Just no matter what, he would always find a way to get there. He would push, you know, a mile and a half to get somewhere if he had to. He would find some way to get where he had to and he like never complained about it ever. and I think, like, that’s like something else in the disabled community that like a lot of people maybe don’t know about, is like–
You know I talk about like sympathy. Like, I started this brand. It’s called like “Fuck Sympathy” because the word sympathy actually means from feeling pity or misfortune for someone else, and I feel like that’s something a lot of people feel for people with disabilities. And, like, I’ve explained this a couple of times but there’s a really big difference between sympathy and empathy. And, like, sympathy is like– You know, like I said, it comes from people wanting to feel pity for someone’s misfortune. So at that point you’re basically saying you think my existence is misfortunate because I’m disabled.
And so when you have empathy you’re actually looking for a way to connect and to relate, and with sympathy it’s actually more selfish. It’s more of a selfish thing for that person who’s like, “Oh, I feel so bad for you.” It’s, you know, it’s a selfish thing for them. So, like, I think this picture….
Ashley Gilbertson: Wait, Nolan.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah, go ahead.
Ash Gilbertson: You’re–like, I love, I’ve always admired what you’ve had to say about sympathy and empathy. And I think as a spectator of your work, I feel very much that you’ve addressed both of those points visually. Particularly in the work with you know with the homies that you made in New York from the disabled community. And I think, like, do you feel like that’s something that you when you’re shooting, you’re looking for moments that actually explain that? Or are you just shooting, working it out?
Nolan Trowe: I think it’s more just working it out. Like, I think just like subconsciously I was probably doing that. And I mean, I think that gets into a whole different conversation of, like, being an insider of a community and being an outsider of a community.
And I don’t think, like, one or the other is actually better. Like, I think as an insider of a community you pick up on things that an outsider wouldn’t. But you’re also blind to a ton of things that an outsider is going to notice. And, like, vice versa. So I think the reason why maybe that comes through my pictures is because, because of my personal lived experience, maybe I’m just not it’s just not registering in my head that, like, I have some sort of sympathy or empathy, because it’s, like, I’m living with that. So I’m maybe, like–my mind or my eye isn’t attracted to certain moments that, like, someone who is not living every day with a disability would be attracted to.
But then like, you know, on the flip side, those people on the outside who are able-bodied, like I said, they’re gonna catch things that I’m missing, too, you know. And so I think, like, some sort of truth is like somewhere in the middle of that. You know?
Ash Gilbertson: You may you may remember early on, when you were doing– you were working on this series and your pictures that you were showing me were of people that were so strong, like, facing adversity or facing struggle and overcoming it. And I think one of the challenges that we face when we were talking about what constitutes this as an essay was–and now, actually, in this conversation I’m beginning to understand why that was such a challenge, but it was finding, it was you making moments of vulnerabilities. And I wonder if you were pushing back at that time because you were scared of creating, or you were aware of creating some sort of sympathy versus empathy. But the vulnerabilities of course in the end helped it dramatically.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. Yeah, I don’t know. It was weird. Just coming in, like you said, I think I came into it, like, totally blind. And I think yeah, finding the root of the photo essay for me, like, now that I’ve been in it more, I mean like, this was like one of the first things that I ever did. So I didn’t really–first off, I didn’t really understand the concept of, like, what a photo essay was, just to be perfectly honest. I just like didn’t really get it.
But I don’t know. I just kind of approached–I wasn’t approaching this from like a journalism standpoint, I was just approaching it how I always approached photography which was as me documenting my friends. Like in high school I had this little tiny, like, crappy point-and-shoot. But I had that thing in my pocket like everywhere I went. And, like, you know I wanted this DSLR and blah de blah. But, like my family couldn’t afford that, for me. So one day, you know, my mom got me this little point-and-shoot. And so, like, I basically was just applying that same logic to my life with a nicer camera. And I think it was also like, now that I was disabled and I was hanging out with it just so happened to be that all my friends were disabled, like, I think it was you who kind of pointed out, like, yo. Like this isn’t just, like, you photographing your friends. Like, this is something deeper than that now. Like, you’re talking about a lot of things that go deeper, like societal issues,and you know, like all your friends who are either living in poverty or struggling, or the inaccessibility of the city. Like, these are things you’re documenting without even realizing you’re documenting them.
Because, yeah, I guess that means to me I was just literally applying the same logic as I would have with my point-and-shoot. Like, oh I’m at a party. I’m going to photograph that. Oh, my friends are playing wheelchair football, I’m just going to take pictures of that. Like that’s just kind of how I always took pictures. I’m kind of like, I think it’s been like the one thing I’ve been really compulsive about. You know?
Ash Gilbertson: Was there a point that you can identify which you switched–sorry about the background.
Can you identify a point at which you switched? At which you started looking at– looking at all the all the folks you were photographing as not just friends, but also subjects that, let’s say, who could illustrate a wider truth as you understood it? Or has it always remained like that?
Nolan Trowe: No, I mean I think it’s always remained like that to some degree. But like I said, I think–so that first project was my first semester in grad school. And I was taking, like, all these different sociology classes and anthropology courses and human rights, and all this different stuff that I hadn’t really been exposed to during my undergraduate career as, like, creative writing. I was just doing English and stuff. So you know, I think I had always been….
I think what really got me interested in sociology and all this kind of shit was actually skateboarding and hip-hop. Because both of those cultures, like, I just feel like there’s so much about that, without having to tell you it’s about that. That’s what I love about it. Like, everyone gets together, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you’re at, what you’re doing, what you like. Like, no one gives a shit. You’re just all together. But when you really break it down, you have people who are rich, people who are poor, people who are Black, people who are Hispanic, like, that’s what I always loved about hip-hop and skateboarding. So I think between that, and then finally, actually, learning how to contextualize that more in like an academic or intellectual standpoint–
It was really useful because–When I met Adi who’s the guy closing his hands with his eyes closed in the back left in this picture, I’d say this, this is like when I first started to like say, okay. Like, I’m not just looking at my group of friends, but I’m looking at someone who is, like, a single father. I’m looking at someone who is still like managing to go to school, who is like living in the projects, who is like doing all this shit, regardless. And like, with disability, like, there’s just such a stigma about people who like collect disability and people who are disabled of, like, being lazy and just like, you know.
It’s just like, you name the stereotype and like, it’s there with disability. And like, so when I met Adi, like we met at this wheelchair football game. And it’s just like, I don’t know. He’s like my best friend, like I love that dude so much. Like we’re–it’s, I’ll get to it later in the talk but I mean, we still talk like weekly and it’s that–it’s like the cool thing about doing this, I guess. Was, like, it started as friends and then it became projects, but I was actually able to evolve my friends with the projects, and now I have them, you know, being way more collaborative with it and stuff.
But, yeah, I’d say when I first started to really look at it in like a deeper sociological standpoint was with Adi. Because he was someone who was kind of like, I mean he was living in really trying circumstances a lot of times. And at the same time, you know, he was someone who was just like this beautiful, like, this devoted father, like–
Ash Gilbertson: I love this picture so much. My favorite picture of yours. You know the how many times you went back to get that picture?
Nolan Trowe: Dude I slept–I mean that was the other thing. I slept over, like, me and Adi are like brothers. Like, I don’t know. Like, I slept over. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve slept in like the Wagner projects and saw him. Like– It’s a bunk bed. What happened in this picture actually is, like, I was sleeping on the top bunk. Adi was on the bottom bunk and then his kids were like, I think it was another mattress. I forget. They changed up the spot since I’ve been there. But, um, you know, I just woke up in the morning. I think it was like super early before the boys went to school. And he like hit his chin on the, I think, on the dresser or something. And he was just like putting vaseline on his chin and cleaning it. And I just like, I literally just woke up, and I slept with my camera right next to me, and I was just like…. I don’t know, it just happened. I only had like two frames of that actually. It just was, it was there and gone, and I don’t know, like yeah. So when I–
Yeah, yeah, I’m like really–I guess. I think I just feel really like fortunate and like privileged that like people have let me into their lives. And not just as like a brother or a friend, but like as someone who’s trying to document the community, and like kind of get the word out, you know. I mean, I’m so fortunate. it’s hard for me to like find the words for it. Yeah, like–
Ash Gilbertson: The other thing I want to say, like, just when you say community again, is one of the things that blew my mind when you were doing this work. I remember you gave me an approximate number of how many people identify as disabled in New York, a city of, what are we at, 8 million people. So what what was the number again, roughly?
Nolan Trowe: I think it’s people who identify as disabled. I don’t know, don’t quote me on this. It’s been a while since i’ve thought about this statistic, but I think it’s something around 25%, and then in New York 1% of the population. Or I think it’s half a percent, less than 1% are wheelchair users. That’s what it is. Because disability is just such a big tree. Like you have, you know, cognitive disabilities, and ambulatory disabilities, and auditory.
Ash Gilbertson: But like, the numbers are– It’s enormous. It is absolutely enormous, I mean. Like the Census, the Census recognizes almost a million people living with disabilities in New York City back in 2017. In a city of 8 million people. Now, of course, like you said it’s a huge umbrella. And we’re looking at people who use wheelchairs or various other, you know, other other ways. It’s still like–for the issues that you are covering here, and that you are bringing such a gentle eye on,
I– Look man, I do my best to read as broadly as I possibly can, but then I sit down and I have a coffee with you and I’m like, what the fuck. One in eight people.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah.
Ash Gilbertson: One way or another are like struggling with something, you know. But they grind, they get through it.
Nolan Trowe: I mean, yeah, like look at Adi. I mean, dude, the guy–that’s what I’m saying. Like all my friends in New York, like– And like, shout out to New York. I fucking love that city. Because when I moved to New York not only were the people just so great, but like as gnarly as that city is to navigate as someone with a disability, like, it pushed me like so far in my recovery. And I think like, if you can survive New York City as a person with, like, any kind of disability, like, everywhere else I’ve gone has just been like a cakewalk. Like, seriously, I’m not even joking.
Ash Gilbertson: I don’t know, man, I don’t know. Like, I recognize that’s you’re a pretty positive person on some days. And today happens to be one of them. That said, the stuff that you were telling me about, like that you guys were up against here, like–
Nolan Trowe: Oh yeah.
Ash Gilbertson: How far, like–I would call you and say you want to come and get a coffee with me. Or you want to go hang out at The Cage on West 4th? And you’d be like, nah man, like the closest subway to where I am right now it’s 3 miles. It’s going to take me an hour to get there.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah, I mean, yeah, this is–Okay, so all of what I said isn’t to downplay like how inaccessible and rough and kind of bullshit, how the–it’s not even just the city. I mean, it’s just the world is just inaccessible. And New York City is really tough too because, I mean a lot of my work was, at first, was focused on personal stories, but a lot of it just happened to be about accessibility. Because, I mean, you can’t live in New York and not use the subway. Like it’s kind of impossible, you know. So yeah, I mean it’s tough, like, whether it’s–
And then thing with accessibility is you can talk about it, like, in terms of the metro, but you can also talk about it in terms of employment. Like how many jobs are available for people like me, who like, you know. It’s not like I can just go out and get some job if I really have to get money, and just pull some thing. Like, I can’t lift 50 pounds. I can’t sit for eight hours a day at a desk because my back hurts. Just like, I just can’t do it, and like you know. It– And so yeah, you can talk about inaccessibility from the physical barriers as far as getting into buildings, taking subways, crossing streets, making sure there’s curb cuts. Like, you know, you can talk about like that. But you can talk about it from education. Like how’s the education system accessible? Is it at all? I mean, no. I had, a few meetings at NYU where, because it was an old building, you know, they didn’t have to remodel it or put an elevator, or even put a ramp. So I’m like, you know, luckily I was able to walk so I was able to you know get myself up the stairs. But I’m like, dude, if I was a full-time wheelchair user, like, dude I would be fucked. Like there’s no way I’m getting into this building for this meeting I have to attend for class.
You know, which is ridiculous. Or like my friend who was blind at NYU. The dorm she lived in had no Braille on anything. I’m like, dude, but you know. So it’s like education, it’s employment, it’s–I mean you could look at any sector, yeah, transportation. Almost look at any sector of society and just notice how it is built around an ableist narrative, you know. It’s pretty–
Ash Gilbertson: And that’s like, that’s one of the things I think initially–I’m seeing it more now in your work where you’re promoting, like, a more integrated society. Or not promoting, but like photographing a more integrated society. Whereas the stuff very early on, it was, like, the disabled community. And it’s–I don’t want to say it’s ghettoized because it’s not the right word, but it’s definitely segregated. And I remember– think of the time that we met, you correct me if i’m wrong here, but my son was at his school and there was–it was a segregated school. Like, literally.
Half of the school was for kids with some sort of disability. And it could have been hearing, it could have been vision, it could have been a wheelchair user. And then it was non wheelchair users in the other side of the school. And so these two schools, I mean completely segregated. And I–like, separate buses for the kids. And I remember talking with you about this. Because you have had–because this happened to you later in your life, you’ve had the window on both sides, right? And I remember growing up, you know, in a different country, and it was completely normal to have kids with all manner of, you know, from all spectrums of life. It wasn’t stigmatized, but I feel like we don’t do very much to destigmatize and normalize different people’s situations.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah, and you know, honestly too, I know from my friends who have congenitive disabilities, meaning they were born with disabilities versus people who, pardon the term, inherited them in later in life, whether through degenerative disease, or me, like an accident. I think a lot of it comes down to, like, parents having to really advocate for the children. Like, for those things. Like, for instance, my friend Azelia who’s in this picture and this picture and this picture, you know her her mom and her family was always like, no, like, you’re going to just go to school. You’re not going to go, like, some special school. You’re not going to, like–
You’re not you’re not any different, so we’re not going to treat you like you’re different. You’re just going to, like, handle your shit, you know. And I have a lot of friends who were raised like that, too. So, I mean it’s–yeah, it’s hard for me to say, but I do really think it comes down to like, in a lot of ways, people who you have who are like advocating for you. You know, especially if you’re a child. Because you know you learn a lot of things from your parents and you soak a lot up from them, so if your parents are always telling you, yo you can do this, you can do this, you know, fuck with the school says. You’re going to be in, like, the class with everyone else. And you know, I think that’s like a really good thing. Because yeah, when you just have, like, all the disabled kids like sectioned off, or like taking different buses, or in different parts of the school. I mean you’re not doing anything to normalize it. It just others disability more and more and more.
So, like people think, oh–Well you know what it is? I think it’s just people being lazy. Honestly, like the education system is like, Well we should have all the deaf kids in one class because we don’t want to have, like, accessible technology and all the classrooms. Or we have five wheelchair–go ahead.
Ash Gilbertson: It’s like, and I mean, I agree with you. I think it’s such a simplistic–Unfortunately I think you’re right, but it’s such a simplistic way of looking at it. Because the research that i’ve read from places like UNICEF, who specialize in like analyzing education practices in children and in teams, everybody benefits from an inclusive classroom, for example. Like speaking specifically about that.
One of the things, like hearing you speak about this, and always you know, and having known you all these years, I recognize you as a journalist and I recognize that you have a very, very critical eye at what you’re photographing. And when drawing things into questions, drawing questions from society and the people that you’re working with, but how do you actually see yourself? Because you…. Like, are you an advocate? Are you a journalist? Are you an observer? Like, what are you? What do you do?
Nolan Trowe: Dude I don’t know. I think the more– I swear to God, I just like think that the more and more I get into it, I just get more confused. And I don’t think that that’s a bad thing, actually. I think it’s actually a good thing. I don’t know, I had–
Ash Gilbertson: I’m waiting for you to tell me to fuck my labels.
Nolan Trowe: Well yeah, pretty much. Like I don’t– Like, yeah fuck your labels, dude. Fuck your labels. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s weird. The more I’ve learned about this industry, or what I’m doing or how…. It’s just more, it sounds trite to say this, but I just feel like the more you know, the less you know kind of thing. So it’s like, I mean, if someone asks me, like, what I do, I don’t say, like, oh I’m a photojournalist, or like, I’m a photographer, or I’m a documentarian. I think I used to do that.
But now I’m like, dude, I do so many things and at some point–sometimes I’m a journalist. Sometimes I like to do like fine art shit. Sometimes I like to make music. Like, I don’t know. I’m not just like one thing. And like, I think that’s the other thing, too, when I first was, like, doing whatever you want to call it, this–whatever this is, documentary photography, photojournalism. I was pretty, like, stuck in like, Oh, this has to be one way. Like there’s one way to do things.
And so I never thought, Oh, how can I actually like combine all this stuff? How can I combine video and photography and audio, and can I make the soundtrack to my own video so I don’t have to pay someone for copyrights? Like, I don’t know. But like, at first, like, I just didn’t really like think about it in those terms, you know. I was so focused on, like labels, I guess, and now that–
Ash Gilbertson: Sara Terry must have been interesting, like really interesting to work with. Not just for her incredibly intellectual approach to the world, and insightful approach, but her use of video. And narrative. Like, she’s got a really–it must have opened up your world from like hanging out with me in a coffee shop to like, Oh my God, I can do it all.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah, I mean–well yeah, I guess I was really just trying to, like, for lack of a better term, I was essentially just trying to be like you. You know, but that’s like how creation goes. I feel like, I forget what the three things are but it’s like emulation, something else, and then innovation. Right, so it’s like you emulate–
Oh, it’s like emulation creation and innovation. So you emulate something, you replicate it, and then you decide, Oh, I’m going to like actually innovate. And so for a long time I was just like in that emulation mode, whether it was like you, or like, I don’t know, like Mary Ellen Mark or you know, whoever. You know, people I was like looking at. So yeah, like being–I’m super grateful for Sara Terry. Like, dude, she changed my life.
Because she, like one of the things she had me do, like the first time we spoke was through email. And she said, I want you to, like, write me a letter. About like, what you want to get out of the next two years. Like tell me everything you want to get out of it. And one of the things I said was, I want to learn how to, like– First off, I want to learn how to use color more, because I just never did. Just, I saw you doing black and white, and all these other people, all these people I liked, and I was like, Fuck it, I’m going to just like do black and white. And I’d say it’s a lot easier to edit, I think, to be honest. But anyway, regardless of that. She helped me–
Yeah, she really helped me, like, realize that photography or whatever you want to call it isn’t just one thing. Or it doesn’t have to be. You can do whatever you want and there’s no harm in, like, failing. Because you never really fail, you just learn. Like if something doesn’t work and it totally sucks, you’re like, Okay, like, then the other thing, you know. Like it’s never a fail because I felt like I was always learning.
And she also really pushed me. This is a great segue. She pushed me to, like, really put myself in the narrative. Like, she was like–and I’ve always, that was like something I’ll always hold on to. It’s like, any story we do, whether it’s like you as a journalist or me as a documentarian or whatever, like, I think, for a long time, I was like so caught up on like the ethics of things and like, blah blah blah. And you know, it’s like when you’re there photographing something, you’re never separate from it. Like, you’re a part of that story, I think, no matter what. And you’re drawn to certain stories for certain reasons. Like there’s a reason why, like, someone wants to go photograph, like, I don’t know, a small group of people in like rural Ohio. It’s not just by coincidence that you go, Oh yeah Like, there’s something like that you’re not exploring enough, that it’s like bringing you there. Because, like, you don’t have to go there. I mean unless you’re on an assignment, right? But even when you’re on assignment, you’re you’re interacting. You’re there you’re talking, you’re taking pictures, like, there’s no way you can’t be a part of something. And so, like, what Sara told me like within the work I was doing in Harlem was like, she was like, where the Fuck are you?
Ash Gilbertson: Huh. Right.
Nolan Trowe: Where are you? She’s like, these are all your homies, like this is your community, right? This is your adopted family, like this is your crew. Like, where are you? I don’t See you in any picture. And I was like, damn. But isn’t that, like, unethical? Like is it–I don’t know, you know what I mean? Like as a journalist you’re not like, Oh, what’s up, like I’m meant to be in the picture. So I think like, she–or when we had that conversation, because like…. And this kind of goes–So this was like, this is me like starting to kind of get there.
Ash Gilbertson: I just wanna say I adore this picture. This picture, like, you’ve heard me say this before Nolan, but there’s images where– So there’s a thing in the samurai tradition, right? Where you train so much, sword becomes no sword. You stop thinking about the actual practice of of using your tool. And I think that this image, like, your camera became your eye. Like I cannot feel the presence of a photographer. Like, I feel you.
I love this image so much. It’s so natural. Like I am there with you.
Nolan Trowe: Thank you so much, dude. That means a lot. Because this image, yeah, this was this was hard man. This was when, so I got out of my wheelchair. I was walking, I was exploring New York, I was like feeling like I was kicking ass. I was neglecting my health, is what I was doing. That’s the truth, you know.
And so I ended up back in the wheelchair for, like, six months because I had just ruined my leg. Like my foot was just torn down to the bone, and it was bad. And I was just exhausted. So like, yeah. I mean this was just one of those situations where the elevator was out and I had to get to class. And I wasn’t going to pay $75 for an accessible Uber from Brooklyn to the West Village, because that’s just insane. But yeah, so I had to–luckily I was still able to walk a tiny bit, so I had to like flag these police officers down in Bed Stuy, and I was like, Can you please just like help me get my chair down.
And the funny thing was, I wasn’t even gonna, like, I didn’t even think about photographing it. I was, like, at the bottom. I was, like, waiting there. And I always just have my camera on me and then I was like, Oh wait, like I should take a picture of this, you know. I don’t know. But this was, like, when I started to try to put myself in the narrative more, you know.
But it’s funny because I’m still not in the pictures, but it’s from my personal perspective. Like, I wrote an opinion piece from the first person. So this is me, I’m just not actually in the pictures. I just wanted to write about how people just constantly stare at me when I’m in public. Whether I’m in a wheelchair, or I’m limping around with my canes, or even if I don’t and they’re just fucking staring at my leg braces. You know, so like, it’s funny because, like, a lot of people will say like, Oh, well, when you point the camera at anyone they’re going to, like, stare at you, or give you a weird response. And I’m like, yeah, that’s probably true. But like this–this project wasn’t so much about, like–Being pure journalism is like, Oh, like, this is the, you know–because if you walk up in front of anyone and just stare at them with a camera and take picture, they’re gonna be like, What the fuck are you doing kind of thing. But this was just, like, me trying to illustrate how I feel people look at me all the time, regardless of whether I’m pointing a camera at them or not.
And so–and sometimes I would do it at people I specifically noticed were like staring at me. Like this dude. I was, like, on the West Fourth courts and he just kept, like, looking at me, and I was like, Dude. Like, goddam. Like, fuck. Like, just stopped looking at me, you know. Same with this guy. I was just on the subway and he kept looking over at me. Like I would just be sitting there and I would notice him staring at me and then I’d look away. And again. And I just like, Dude, fuck you. And I, like, took my camera, and I think the camera actually became like, I don’t want to say a weapon. But it was like a mirror. I felt like I was able to, like, reflect that gaze back at people, because as soon as I would point the camera, then they would get uncomfortable. And I’m like, now you know how I feel. Like, stop doing that.
Ash Gilbertson: That’s interesting. I mean that’s that’s really actually fascinating. It’s a fascinating way to–oh my God this picture.
It’s a fascinating way to approach it because that’s one of the things with photography is that we’re–we often use it to hold up a mirror to ourselves, right? And you’re actually doing it literally, in person on a crowded subway.
Nolan Trowe: Oh, my God. Yeah. It was a… And then I also like this picture, too, because as much as I like rail on people for, like, staring at me, or like just not understanding disability and stuff, like, I kind of get it, though. Like because kids, little kids are just like, they don’t know right from–like this little kid doesn’t know what he’s doing, but I just notice little kids, anytime I roll by in my wheelchair, or like if I limp by, they’re just like awestruck. Like, what is this? So I just, I don’t think, like, this staring always comes from, like, a malicious intent.
I think people are also just genuinely curious because there’s no education about disability. People don’t understand disability. So there’s just like this, Oh, like, shit like I don’t see that a lot. Or I don’t really see people with leg braces and two canes. They’re like, in some ways it can be really–I mean honestly, it’s really annoying, but I try to also empathize with people and say okay. Like, they’re curious. So I can either get mad or I can like exploit their curiosity to teach them something.
Ash Gilbertson: Right, and that’s one of the roles that you’re really, I think that you’ve really filled–Oh my God, and that. Like it’s so…. This work is so good, it’s such a self–it’s a journal, right?
But I think it’s one of the roles that you’ve filled so beautifully. Another thing that you do, among the other gazillion things that you do, is–like, this work is so expressive, but it’s so educational as well. Like, you teach me, you’ve taught me with your words, and now your images, what your experience is. And what I should be lobbying for with friends, or colleagues, or opportunities that I have with people in power. You know, like, I think it’s I think it’s really effective. And I think, like the more you get this stuff out there, the more likely we are to see actual change.
Nolan Trowe: I hope so. I mean it was pretty cool that, like, I was able to speak on New York 1 about this, yeah. Like, that was pretty crazy. But it was sick, because I got to go on New York 1, to basically just like preach human rights for like two or three minutes of primetime news air, and it was really sick. I was like, Fuck yeah. Like, it was like super subversive. I was like, Yes, like I got to totally use this, and–it was awesome. Like, because the guy, the guy kept trying to, like, steer it in another direction, and I was like, No. Like, we’re talking about how fucked up this stuff is and, like, human rights and stuff.
Yeah. So I’m glad, dude. I’m lucky I’ve had platforms. Like, i’ve got to speak on New York 1. Like, Philadelphia Museum of Art, I get to do stuff like this. Like, I’ve got to talk to Getty and Verizon and just so many different networks. And I feel like that’s such a great, like, privilege and….
But yeah, anyway, so I guess I’ll segue to this, which is I got–I just wanted to start giving my friends cameras. And this just has happened by accident as a double exposure, but I was teaching my friend Adi how to use a Hasselblad. Because, like, I just always felt like when people do participatory media projects, they like, give them little crappy disposable point-and-shoots. And, like, that’s cool, like it’s accessible, everyone knows how to use it. But I was just kind of like, Dude, how sick would it be to, like, teach my friends how to use like this giant, gnarly camera. And like, I don’t know, it’s just so fun to like–it became, like, educational, too, because I was like teaching them about the camera and they were like super interested.
And that’s a picture Adi took of me which I fucking love this picture so much. But yeah, it’s just like, I guess I took–like this happened right before COVID, so like, this was taken between January and March. Like, I was just starting to, like, go to Harlem and give my friends the camera and, like, us take pictures of each other. Because I thought a lot about what Sara said, and I was like, You know what, like we have a lot of agency with like–so yeah I was giving my friend Azalea a camera to document, like, her life. And it was just, like, yeah. Like, why shouldn’t my friends have agency and how they get to represent themselves, too? Like, I see their lives in a certain way, and even though, like, I’m in the disabled community–
I’m also not them. Like, you know, there’s insider-outsider to, like, relationships, and then there’s, like, microcosms of that, yeah. And I also just, yeah, I wanted to start putting myself in the story, where I was like, Yeah, I guess I’m not really separate from this. Like, this is part of it, you know? Yeah, it was sick, dude. I don’t know, I miss it, I can’t wait to go back to Harlem and continue this, man, because this is like where it was starting to get, like, super exciting.
Ash Gilbertson: Dude, now is time. You gotta come back. Like, the sun is out in New York, people are back in the streets, vaccines are available. Like, get your ass over here.
Nolan Trowe: Dude, I’m trying. Oh, I love this picture so much.
Ash Gilbertson: That’s an amazing picture. Wow.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah, no, this is all unreleased. Like I haven’t–I mean this is the first time I’m like publicly speaking about this. But, yeah so like Tia’s favorite toy she has is this wheelchair Barbie, because I get that– like, she has she hasn’t even taken it out of the box because she loves it so much. And so, for, like, a five-year-old girl to not rip a Barbie out of the package is like, I don’t know. I’m just like, dude that, like, that child must just like love that. Like the love between that is so strong. Because, yes, to have like the willpower to not do that because you love something so much, and it’s, you know, because she sees her mother represented in pop culture. Like when do you ever see a Black woman in a wheelchair, like, as a as a Barbie? I mean like, that–I don’t know, I think, like, shout out to Barbie for that. I don’t know about all the other shit they’ve done.
Ash Gilbertson: It’s a great, it’s an unbelievable picture. Wow.
Nolan Trowe: And so, yeah, I gave her, like, some disposable cameras. I was teaching her how to use the Hasselblad. I got this little, like, Sony RX100 that they’ve been shooting. I just send them sd cards whenever they need them. And I haven’t got them back yet, so I’m like really excited to see, like, what’s been happening. And at the same time I’m still taking some pictures. Like, I don’t know. I really like this one. It’s like one of my favorite portraits. I just really like it, Because you don’t really get to see, like, you know, parents with disabilities.
Well, specifically Azalea, like, when she got pregnant, you know, she has cerebral palsy and everyone was telling her, Oh you shouldn’t have a kid. Like, that’s fucked up. Yeah, people in the street, who didn’t–like strangers would come up to her and just like start to lecture her on, like, how irresponsible she was.
Ash Gilbertson: Oh, my God. Kill us all. Fuck.
Nolan Trowe: Dude, you know what I mean? And it’s just like, dude, she’s like one of the best mothers I’ve ever met–like, the relationship, she has with her daughter is just so fucking strong and beautiful and, like, I don’t know, it’s–
Ash Gilbertson: They’re beautiful.
Nolan Trowe: I know. And it’s just–yeah, it’s frustrating how, like, yeah, I think like people just want to–because people don’t understand the disabled community they try to just–they think they know what’s best for us, and it’s just like, you don’t.
Ash Gilbertson: Right. Right, that’s the thing, like, yes. More–we need more voices.
Nolan Trowe: More voices and instead of telling people what they need, ask them what they need. Don’t just say, You need this. Yo, what do you want, what do you need? That’s like something that never happens. Like people are never asked for what they need. They’re told what you get. You’re told what you get, you don’t ask for what you need. And so, like, this is like the last picture I took before–this was, like, actually when COVID was happening. This was like March 8th or 9th. And one of our friends in the community passed away. Not from COVID but from something else. She had just a really gnarly seizure. Yeah.
Ash Gilbertson: Nolan, I think we should stop on March 8 and roll into questions, because I’m sure that we have them.
Nolan Trowe: Okay, yeah.
David Campbell: Indeed, yes.
Ash Gilbertson: You’ve got a lot more work, I know, so I urge everybody watching to go to Nolan’s website, which is in the chat, and explore his work more thoroughly.
David Campbell: So, Nolan, we got a couple of questions from the audience and one of them–you were talking a lot about putting yourself into the narrative, and the issues of that. Jacqueline asks, How has photographing people living with disability impacted your perception of yourself after your accident? Has it changed it or has it stayed the same? And if so, why?
Nolan Trowe: It’s really changed it. A lot. I’m like so much more…. I just embrace it to the fullest degree. Whereas I think because I had a disability later on in life, there was always like, at first, this pushback I had. Like, Oh, I want to, like, get back to normal. Or like, you know. I was like, I’m gonna walk again and be running and doing all this stuff and, like, I didn’t want to be called disabled or anything. And like the more time I photographed people in the community, and then started to be like, Oh, you know what, like, this is, these are my people. Like, I’m this is where I belong, you know. Like, I kept trying to fit into, like, an able-bodied world, or like an able-bodied society. And it was just like, Why am I doing that? Like, I don’t have to do that. I fit in perfectly here with all my friends, and people who actually understand me. Like, I don’t know why I’m holding onto this previous thing that doesn’t give a shit about me.
Yeah, so I just have more empathy for myself, for sure. I think I was really hard on myself for a long time. And I guess I still am, it’s something I work on a lot. Just being nicer to myself. But yeah, it’s certainly given me a lot more empathy.
David Campbell: There’s a question from Solomon. He asks, How can we ensure that photography supports disabled people and is made accessible to us without adding to ableism?
Nolan Trowe: I think–I mean that’s a good question. I think it’s all about, like, I mean honestly, you need people in the industry who are going to give you opportunities. I mean if it’s going to be widespread like, I mean you can always, like, you can always build your own little thing and have your own little niche thing. But like, I think, once photography of people with disabilities or photography by people with disabilites gets broken into the mainstream more, like, then it becomes– you know, then it gives people a reason to listen to it more and like, trying to understand it more, and I think, like, making photography accessible for people with disabilities is, like, really challenging.
Because, like, for instance, with my friend Azalea, she has CP and she can’t really, like, it’s really hard for her to use a camera. And then, like, I have another friend, like I said, who has like really limited vision, so I don’t know, like, I think there are definitely more accessible photography tools out there. Like, remote trigger things and then people getting assistance to help them with stuff. But, yeah, I mean I guess in a way that always fits in to an ableist agenda, because if there’s anything–Basically, in, you know, in disability studies there’s this thing called equal facilitation, which means that you don’t need anyone else to access something. So, like, if I need to get into a bar to go have a drink, I don’t need to like press a button and wait for someone, and have them bringing a ramp out so I can get into the bar. I can just get in if I want to. And I think like, yeah, they’re just– I think technology has made photography a lot more accessible, especially with digital and with phones and there’s just so many more options now. But I guess, like, a way to subvert that is like what you use it for, and how you use the technology and how you want to get it out. Because, you know, I guess all this technology for the most part is designed for people who are able-bodied. Like, as far as camera systems and stuff go, I don’t know of any camera system that’s been specifically designed for people with disabilities. Maybe there’s stuff in the iPhone. I’m not really too sure. But anyway, I think it’s about taking that technology and subverting it, you know. I think, like, that’s how you can win.
David Campbell: Do you think that, in addition to the obvious but such important questions about infrastructure and the technology and so on, that ableism has shaped photography, the practice of photography, in other ways?.
Nolan Trowe: Oh yeah. Oh my God, 100 percent.
David Campbell: And where do we see that? Where are the traces of that?
Nolan Trowe: Oh my God, just tell anyone to go on assignment. It’s fucking brutal for me. Like I still do it, but it’s tough man. Because people expect you to, like–and some places expect you to, like, shoot video, and do this, and have two different bodies, and, like, before you know it you have your laptop, and a wireless router, and your hard drive. Like, dude, I gotta carry all that shit with me. And then you expect me to be out on like an 8 to 10 hour day. Like, and you want me to get all these different–it’s, it’s tough.
And even when it’s not something like that where it’s an assignment where maybe you’re covering like, you know, like an event or a protest or something like that, even a lot of times with, like, you know, the accessibility of, like, where–the proximity to what you’re covering, how long your days are. Like for me, if I’m having a day with, like, brutal nerve pain, which could be any day. It just happens. You know, if I have an assignment that day, I mean, you know, I gotta suck it up and do it, and I do it, but like, I can’t just call my editor and be like, Yo like, my nerve pain is so bad right now that, like, I can barely get out of bed, Like, can we reschedule the assignment. That’s not a thing. Like, people–And I think it’s also, a of people don’t….
People in the industry, haven’t–There are many working photographers in my situation. Like, I know one other guy who was in Houston who had the same injury as me. Spinal cord injury. And, you know, he uses braces and he’s still able to walk. And then I know a couple other photographers who are amputees. But like, as far as working photographers with ambulatory disabilities? Because, like okay, yeah, you can have disabilities like, you know, cognitive or, you know, all these other disabilities, but when you have like ambulatory, or like, you know, maybe it’s your vision or something. But the ambulatory has been really tough for me, because a lot of times in photography you’re expected to physically do so much, and go so far, and stand for long periods of time, and get so much stuff done, and file immediately, and it’s like, dude, do I have time to even like stretch my back for 30 minutes if it’s like spasming? I don’t know, you know.
So, yeah, I mean it’s just, it’s just been, I mean–But that’s just, yeah, like photography is pretty inaccessible. I think, like, one of the main reasons I’ve been able to do as much as I have been able to do is because I still do have the ability to walk if I need to. And so for people who don’t, like, if you have an assignment that’s on a river or something, you can’t do it. Because there’s probably not going to be an accessible trail there. There might not be accessible parking. There might not– You know, so it just really limits the scope of what we do in a lot of ways. And you know, people are, people find ways to do things. I’ve definitely had to, you know, MacGyver some stuff and do some funky shit to make something happen, but that is….
You know, I think editors need to, when they’re working with someone with a disability, need to be understanding and accommodating of what people need. Because you can’t apply this–you can’t expect me to to do the same thing that Ash is going to do, because Ash is–first off, just a fucking mad man. But second off, I mean, the guy he’s fully able bodied. Like, I mean to expect that same amount of shift from me is–is you know, you should just, you should expect something that is different. And it doesn’t mean it’s going to be less than. You just have to, just–
Ash Gilbertson: Hear, hear. Hear, hear, man. Yes, so well said.
David Campbell: Have you been getting assignments from agencies, editors, publications, websites? And have they chosen you differently to bring this particular perspective, or are they then surprised and then they’re like, We have to think about it, all that.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah, it’s been both. I’ve had some editors who are, like, pretty understanding. And I’m like, yo, like this is the situation, like I’m not going to be able to file right at 5pm because I can’t carry my laptop and hard drive and charger and, you know, all this shit with me. I just have to carry bare bones, because I can only put so much weight on my back. So instead of filing at 5:00, I’m going to be filing probably at, like, 8:00, 8:30, you know. And they’re like, Okay, like, you know it would be dope if you could do it at 5:00, but, you know we get it, like it’s okay. But then I’ve had other editors or producers who’ve reached out me out to me to do assignments, and I’ve told them what I need and they’re just like, Oh well, like that’s not in the budget. So go fuck yourself, kind of thing.
And like I guess, you know, that–I mean negotiating contracts is hard enough when you don’t have a disability, but, like, for instance when I go to do an assignment in like Houston or something, I need to factor in probably an extra $600-700 for taking Ubers places, because I can’t just walk two miles from here to here to here. Like, and you know, I need to factor that in. And if people are like, Well we don’t have an extra $600 to factor in for transportation, then it’s like you can take it or leave it. And luckily I’ve grown enough to where I can say no to things now. But back in the day I would have said yes and put myself through hell to get an assignment. And now I’m like, you know what, like, nothing is worth me being in like an excruciating amount of pain to like get an assignment because someone doesn’t want to work with what I need. So like, if people aren’t willing to at least meet me halfway–I get it, like with budgets you can only do so much sometimes, but like if you’re not, you know, if you’re not even willing to meet me halfway, then like why am I going to fucking kill myself for your organization? You obviously don’t care about me so.
That’s how I feel, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s harsh, but….
David Campbell: There’s a question from Paula, who describes herself as a photographer with a recent disability. She wants to ask whether you ever work with an assistant.
Nolan Trowe: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
David Campbell: And how does that work?
Nolan Trowe: Luckily, a lot of times–well, I just have an amazing wife. So, an amazing life partner. So if she has, like, time off of work, around the house, especially with like me doing self-portraits, like that– I didn’t get to go into it in the talk, but I did this whole series of self-portraits and really if I was going to credit the picture, it should be like, “Jackie and Nolan.” Because, like, she helps me with that shit so much. Like, I’ll have her press the shutter sometimes, or use her as a model, or she’ll– If I’m going somewhere, like, when I was on assignment earlier this year, you know, I had a tripod and an extra camera and, like, my backpack, and she was like helping to carry all that stuff, you know. And so, like the only–Oh, and you know I’ve worked with my boy Cheney, too. He’s helped me a lot, so he’s the homie.
So it’s just about like finding people you trust and who, like, you know who trust you. And if you have good rapport with them it’s like, dude, they’re not going to make a big deal out of it. And if I ever was on assignment where I needed to find an assistant, I would definitely vet people. Like, I would say, Like this is what I need, like can you can you manage this? You know, because I need to feel safe out in the field, and I need to trust whoever I’m with. Because if I started to have, like, some gnarly back spasm and I’m like, you know, I need someone to like press on my back super hard, because it’s the only way it’s going to release, I need to know that you’re okay doing that. You know, you’re not going to be like–
Ash Gilbertson: Nolan, when you come to New York, I’ll get your back and I’ll carry your shit. No problem.
Nolan Trowe: Sick, alright, let’s do it.
Ash Gilbertson: I’m on.
Nolan Trowe: We’ll go to Harlem. But yeah, so just find someone that you trust. And you know, that’s going to help you out. Because they want to, not because they feel bad for you.
David Campbell: And there’s a question about what’s going to happen to the work that you’ve been showing us. Are you planning a book? Are you planning an exhibition? Are you planning other forms of circulation and distribution?
Nolan Trowe: Yeah I’ve been–I mean, I’ve been planning to do a lot of things. But, you know, the best laid plans…. So I mean, I don’t know. This book, I have a book publisher who I’ve been, like, talking with now for the past three years. And she was– when I first showed her the work she was like, Oh it’s ready, like, let’s publish it. And I’ve just never–I just don’t feel like, I feel like once I go back to Harlem and I’m able to continue the work that got shut off, I think once that chapter can finally come together, like, that work will will be ready, finally. And it’s just a lot of coordinating because, you know, all my friends are all, like, they’re single parents, and single parents and working jobs, and they’re still living their own lives, so, you know. I really want them to be the main writers of the text, and so it’s like workshop text, and to get pictures from them, and you know it’s a big process. So….
Sara Terry, you know, shout out to Sara Terry again, you know. I was like rushing myself, Oh I gotta do a book now, I gotta do a book now, and she’s like, Dude, why? Like, there’s literally no deadline. Like, why are you so anxious to do this book? Like, just calm down. Like, get it where it needs to be. It’s going to be your first statement, really, as like a photographer. Your first book. Like, don’t ever like compromise that or rush it just because you’re feeling anxious, or you have to do something with it. And then, yeah, with my self-portraits, I’m still working on that. But I want to, that’s, like, kind of more like–I don’t know whether it’s documentary, fine art, whatever. But. I definitely want to try to get some more grants and fellowships to continue that work, and then hopefully put that up in, like, a gallery or museum somewhere. And have, like, an interactive–I have this dream of like making people understand what I go through physically. Because it’s like, every time I walk around it’s kind of the equivalent of someone who’s able-bodied walking with, like, 30 pound weights on both their legs.
So I kind of want to do something where like people get to strap weights to their legs. And like, put a little something under their foot, so they’re uneven, so they’re kind of walking with–I don’t know, like, I want to do something kind of trippy like that. Where it’s more immersive than just looking at a bunch of nice, pretty pictures on wall.
David Campbell: And you know, you were deeply embedded in the community you were photographing and you’re obviously very close to members of that community. Did they use your work to raise these issues in the community itself, or with local authorities and so on? And if so, how has that happened?
Nolan Trowe: I haven’t seen anyone do it with local authorities. But what’s cool about the work that I’ve published with my friends is like, for instance, I did a whole story on my friend who runs an adaptive boxing program. And the story ran in the Sunday Times. And after that, I mean, he had so many people hitting him up. Like, I forget what it was, like ABC news did a documentary on him, and then like, I think he did something with, like, Google, and he was on a commercial. And like it–like, he did a TED Talk at Yale. Like, getting to talk about, like, his his love of like adaptive boxing and accessibility and stuff. So it’s like nothing’s been done, like, structurally because, you know, I mean trying to fight this city is like….
I don’t know. I think people are better off just spreading their own gospel, whatever it may, be and getting to affect the people around them. Because I believe that’s where real social change happens. Like, just because a law exists doesn’t mean people aren’t going to violate it. I mean, I’m glad that there are laws that exist that prevent certain things from happening, but just because you know, it might be in the law books that it’s illegal to have three steps in front of your restaurant. There’s going to be plenty of restaurants with three steps in front of them. it doesn’t stop anyone from doing that. But if you can affect people in your life that you know directly, and show them, you know, if I can show them my life, or he can show them his life and explain to him–explain to them, like, maybe the struggles he has or the hopes and dreams he has and maybe the things in the way, then that person is going to care about that. And you know it’s kind of like this domino effect. So yeah, I think a lot of social change happens in these, in your close circle, with like the people that you interact with on a daily basis. That’s where I see it taking place the quickest. Like, waiting on New York City to do something is like…. I mean, they’ve been waiting. So like, we can’t really wait anymore, I guess. I don’t know. It’s hard. It’s hard.
David Campbell: I think that’s a pretty compelling place to wrap up, actually. I like that message of kind of people taking social change in their own hands, and not relying on authorities, and kind of change through living differently, and so on. And I get the impression that that that’s kind of been one of the impacts on you, Ash, is that sort of working with Nolan is kind of getting that sense of living differently.
Ash Gilbertson: Yeah, very much very much so. Like, you opened a whole world to me, Nolan, that I’ve got other friends that I’ve explored this with, but you open in a different way, and I will forever, forever be in your debt. For that, I thank you.
David Campbell: Yeah. And I think I think we will for this conversation. I think it’s been extraordinary, actually. It’s been–the work is fantastic, but the conversation is even more powerful than the work in some ways, and powerful connecting to the work in that. So thank you very much, both of you, for conveying that experience. Thank you Nolan for showing that work and talking about that. Ash put Nolan’s Instagram link in the chat for people to follow up on that and we look forward to seeing where you’re going. And thank you to all the participants for attending today.
Nolan Trowe: Yeah, thank you so much, thank you. These guys, thank you.
Ash Gilbertson: Thank you so much everyone.