Slide Show: An Ordinary Day Without Hands

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 19 2011 6:34 PM

Oh Snap! An Ordinary Day Without Hands

If you glance at the photo below too quickly, you might see just another pretty girl fixing her hair. Distracted by Minx’s striking face, it’s possible to miss that which separates her from the woman holding the umbrella behind her and the mannequin in the window: hands.

Minx Slideshow

The photos above, which were recognized by the International Photography Awards, were taken over just two days, following a chance encounter on the street. Photographer Eric Kruszewski was participating in a Magnum photography workshop in Toronto. He’d set out to do a project on the senses, inspired by his mother’s vision troubles. He’d already photographed taste and sight, and as he sat wondering how to personify touch, he spotted Minx in the distance. After dodging traffic to reach her, he explained his project. She agreed to meet up with him the following day.

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Twenty-seven-year-old Courtney, who goes by the name Minx, explained to Kruszewski that she was born with a birth defect that left her with only partially formed arms. She blames her birthplace, Sarnia, Ontario, the heart of Canada’s petrochemical-refining industry, which suffered frequent chemical spills throughout the 1980s. (Known as "Chemical Valley,” Sarnia also recently took the World Health Organization’s title for the worst air in Canada.)

Kruszewski was struck by Minx’s calm, confident way of sharing her story and of getting through a world made for people with hands. “Everything you can do, I can do differently” is her motto, he explains.  

This is evident in the graceful way she opens a door and applies lip gloss. Nothing much happens in the photos—which is what makes them interesting. Seemingly impossible feats occur as if they are nothing.

As one moves through the photos to the end of her day, it’s hard not to want to know more. Minx is a professional writer, Kruszewski says. What and how does she write? How does she make her dinner? Do any of her friends from back home face similar challenges?

In response to these and other queries, Kruszewski reminds me that he only had a single day. He wished he had more time to document her story—a common concern for a growing number of photojournalists, as magazines and newspaper trim their photo budgets, no longer paying photographers to spend weeks getting comfortable with their subjects before documenting their lives.  This can make photographing the lives of ordinary people, unused to the glare of a camera, especially difficult.

And that’s another way that Kruszewski, with his limited time, got lucky: Minx, he says, didn’t have the same self-consciousness he usually finds in those accustomed to gliding unobserved through life.

“She was immediately so open and honest, even showing me how she pulls on a tight shirt,” he recalls, still startled, over the phone.

But when you think about it, this makes sense. If you’ve spent your life bombarded by strangers’ stares, perhaps the attentions of a thoughtful photographer feel, by comparison, comfortable.

Heather Murphy is a former Slate photo editor and the creator of Behold, the Photo Blog. Follow her on Twitter.

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