People all over the world have trouble when they see Kevin Connolly.
Is he a beggar? A holy man? Helplessly handicapped?
Connolly, 22, was born without legs, but anyone who has seen him zipping around Bozeman on his skateboard can see there's nothing helpless about him.
Anyone who heard him telling stories and joking Tuesday night at Montana State University, captivating an audience of about 500 students and community members, can tell he lives his life with a spirit of adventure.
“Yes, I was born without legs - no shark attack, no mining accident," quipped Connolly, an MSU senior majoring in media and theater arts.
“I've been rolling around the world twice now, taking photographs of people as they stare at me."
He said he grew up in Helena, “as a little kid, running around Montana," doing outdoor stuff, walking everywhere on his hands. His mom and dad got him into gymnastics, wrestling and finally skiing with Bozeman's Eagle Mount program.
The subject of his talk was his photography project, “The Rolling Exhibition," the best of 3,200 photos he shot as he traveled around the world, seeing 15 countries from the vantage point of his skateboard.
He seems fearless and unfazed by his lack of legs. Part of the money for his second trip he earned by winning a silver medal in the X-Games skiing competition.
Connolly said he started taking unique photos in Vienna, when people's curiosity and sad stares got on his nerves.
“I finally got sick of it," he said, and decided to stare back through his camera lens. He was surprised when the resulting photos looked cool.
Traveling gave him lots of adventures to recount. In a New Zealand bar, a midget challenged him to a fight. In a Ukrainian subway, a woman thought he was a holy man, put her hand on him and started praying in Yiddish. In Romania, people thought he was a beggar and stuffed money in his backpack. In Los Angeles, a guy thought he was a carnival act, looking for an agent.
Most of his stories were funny. Among the hazards he encountered were cobblestones, cars (he has had several close calls, and once got hit) and dogs.
“Dogs just think I am the devil," he said.
But in Sarajevo, Bosnia, the scene of horrific warfare and ethnic cleansing in the1990s, Connolly had his most difficult time.
“There were people who were not that different from me," he said. The expressions on the faces of people who spotted him “were sadder, more sincere." One boy assumed he had been hit by a mortar shell, he said, “instead of an American kid fortunate to have all this great stuff given to him."
“It was incredibly difficult to shoot there," Connolly said. “I had a mini-breakdown."
He experienced another poignant moment in Helena, when a man in a bar, whose son is fighting in Iraq, asked Connolly if he still had his dog tags.
While studying abroad in New Zealand, Connolly was asked to be on TV, but he didn't like that idea. He said he didn't want to be “pigeon-holed as an inspirational guy."
One man in the audience asked if he wished he had legs.
Connolly replied that he was forced to wear prosthetic legs from age 3 to 11 and he didn't like them. They had no knee joints, and he didn't like being up that high. Now he uses the prosthetic legs as “party favors."
“No, I've grown up with this vantage point, this lifestyle," Connolly said. “And so far, it's working."
Next up, he said he's planning more adventures, this time traveling through South America, South Africa, China and Tibet. The crowd reacted with applause, cheers and whistles.