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Backbones: Supporting a Great Cause

A few months ago, I was contacted to participate in a unique photography project. Backbones, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting survivors of spinal cord injuries, was organizing a traveling exhibit, portraying the stories of a handful of heroic survivors. The stories would be told by both photographs and written words. I, along with 20 other photographers across the country, embarked on photographing our respective survivors. My subject for the project was Ellen Stohl.

Aside from being the first woman with a disability to ever pose in Playboy Magazine, Ellen has an MS in counseling, she writes, lectures, and has been a life coach and advocate to others with physical challenges. As Ellen states in her bio,

"Beauty is something everyone wants to feel they possess, but society can make that a difficult task, especially if you have a disability. Since crushing my spinal cord in an automobile accident and being diagnosed with quadriplegia in 1982, I've had to actively question social standards of perfection to rediscover and recapture that sense of beauty for myself."

As I had no intention of trying to recreate images from 30 years ago, I was focused on visually documenting the Ellen Stohl of today. She is a mother and a wife, and I simply wished to show that side of her. As I am sure Ellen will tell you herself, her wheelchair does not define who she is.

For the purposes of this blog, I decided to focus on two images from our photography adventure. For our first image, I asked Ellen to station herself at the end of the hallway in her home. I liked the composition her reflection in the frames, and the way the hallway ends at her. However, because there was so little room, lighting was not that easy. At camera right there is a doorway to the kitchen, which has direct view of the glass doors to the backyard. Because I knew I would only be using strobes for this scenario, I had to block all natural light. So, I hung up some Duvoteen (black cloth) in the doorway, and jammed a small softbox directly to the left of Ellen. Ideally, I would have liked it more in front of her, but she was unwilling to remove any part of the wall. Our rim light is a strip bank, also just out of frame, at camera left. It is obviously spilling on to the bathroom door, but was aimed as much as possible to Ellen's shoulder, as one can see by the lit area on the right hallway wall. Our last light source was a strobe bouncing off the ceiling, adding a little fill, and giving some definition to the bookshelf.

Having had so much luck in the hallway, I decided to make things even more difficult for myself, and I thought we would do some light painting. I had already rehearsed the shoot at home...with a stuffed how difficult could it be at a new location? The concept was simple. Being that part of Ellen's story had to do with her spine, I decided I would photograph her back via a mirror. This would require her to sit backwards in her chair...something I had not considered in my Teddy bear rehearsal. I must clarify that Ellen and her husband were great sports about all of this. After her husband assisted in reversing Ellen in her chair, she removed her shirt, and then proceeded to nearly fall to the floor. Fortunately, her husband was nearby, and quickly came to the rescue. I felt badly, not having considered the logistics of my unusual request. Kindly, Ellen assured me it was due to her purse, which was making the chair back-heavy. After all the excitement, I had to work out the angle of Ellen's chair, the angle of the mirror, and the location from which I would paint. For those unfamiliar with the technique, light painting involves a long exposure, no ambient light, and literally painting your subject with light. Ideally, your subject does not move a millimeter, and it does not take more than say.......534 attempts. I think we came in at around 427. So, with the camera on a tripod and the aperture open, I must run over (in complete darkness), and begin painting Ellen with a flashlight. Not only are the amount of swiping and distance important, but one must also avoid being in between the subject and camera while "painting." This will cause a most unappealing blur or ghosting. I used a blue filter on the flashing for the chair, just to change things up a bit. The rim light on Ellen's right shoulder was created when I lit her back via the mirror. In the end, I was quite happy with the image, considering that prior to this, I had only light painted a Venus flytrap and some tabletop still life.

Looking back, I was happy with the images. Ellen and her family were very welcoming, allowing me into their home on several occasions. For more information on Backbones, please visit their site at and, and try to catch the exhibit if it comes to your town. If you'd like to learn more about Ellen and her cause, please visit her site at

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