Photographer Nolan Ryan Trowe on being yourself, accessibility and telling stories as a disabled creative
Diagnosed with paraplegia in 2016 after a spinal cord injury, photographer Nolan Ryan Trowe is helping tell the stories of disabled creatives like himself, both through his own artistic projects and through his platform, Everyday Disabled. Looking back, Nolan reflects on a journey that saw him take up photography while studying humanities at New York University, and where he forged important relationships with mentors. Having had his work published in the New York Times within just five months of him taking pictures, here, Nolan talks to us about not compromising on your work, support systems and how the creative industry can become more accessible.
This article has been guest-curated by ThisAbility’s Sulaiman Khan, as part of a partnership to highlight their Disability Radical Imagination Impact Fund, open to applicants until December 3rd, 2021.
Nolan Ryan Trowe
Long Beach, California
New York Times, New Mobility, American Association for People with Disabilities
Place of Study
MA Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, New York University (2016–2019)
BA Creative Writing, California State University (2011–2015)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
If I had to distill it down, I would say it’s storytelling and creating a dialogue. That’s really what I’m trying to do; whether it’s through filmmaking or photography, or writing or painting.
At this point, I’m mostly working for myself. Although I do get clients, assignments have been a lot less frequent, especially since Covid-19. I actually started out doing more journalism and documentary-focused work; that’s what I thought I really wanted to do, and I still love doing it. But during the pandemic, I began doing self-portraits and focusing on my own life.
I think in some ways, I’m able to articulate a lot of things about disability by looking at myself. There’s a level of vulnerability that I can get to within my self-portrait work, which otherwise might be hard to get across when you’re looking at someone else’s life. When you’re working with other people, there’s boundaries that you set, but with myself, I don’t have that – I’ll do basically anything because it’s just me.
As a result, I feel like I’ve come to know myself better. So right now I’m really focusing on just building that body of work and trying to get that out into the world.
Can you tell us more about Everyday Disabled?
Everyday Disabled is a platform for people in the community to share their stories, so that others can see where they’re coming from. For example, the last person we had on was a friend of mine who has Tourette’s syndrome, which I feel is a misunderstood disability.
For the disabled community, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be living with a disability. It’s different for everyone, especially because there’s so many kinds of disabilities – you have people with vision impairments, people like me who have ambulatory stuff or people who are born with congenital disabilities. The list goes on and on.
“For the disabled community, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it means to be living with a disability. It’s different for everyone.”
What’s your favourite project to work on this past year and why?
The portrait series I did for the American Association for People with Disabilities. During the pandemic, I feel like people with disabilities have largely been ignored, so it was cool to photograph not just essential workers, but essential workers with disabilities. I felt like I was adding something new to the conversation.
And then the self portrait project I mentioned. I’ve been working on it for almost two years now. If you look at the first year of my work, there are a lot of pictures of me, but this year, it’s more just my friends, my family, stuff that I see in the hospital. A big part of my life is being in doctor’s offices or hospitals, and I realised I wasn’t really photographing that side of things as much.
What kinds of skills and tools do you use most for your work?
The most useful thing in my practice is having a support system. My really close friends and family have helped me get through tough times, particularly dealing with the trauma from my injury over the past two years. I see a psychologist, too. Without that support and without my health, I don’t really have anything.
Then, technically, I love to work with film photography. So I have a little darkroom and I like to print. Digital is quicker and cheaper, but I like how film slows me down. There’s a certain number of exposures on a roll, and that roll of film costs $5 so you’ve got to make it count. And then you’ve got to be in the darkroom for an hour processing and scanning it. I’ve always been a hands-on learner, and shooting film is a very hands-on process.
A lot of people think [landscape photographer] Ansel Adams’s pictures are “boring”, but he was amazing when it came to darkroom techniques. Something he talks about in his books, that I internalised, was to imagine that what you’re looking at through your camera lens is a print on your wall. So every time I look through the camera, I ask myself, “Yeah, it’s a lot of time and money, but is this something that I really want to print?”
If you could sum up your job in a meme, what would it be?
How I got here
What’s your creative journey been like so far? And how would you describe your first steps into the creative industry?
I feel really fortunate that I got to meet incredible people in my craft very early on. It meant that I got my first publication in the New York Times within five months of taking pictures.
I started out four years ago, while I was in NYU as a graduate student in experimental humanities. I ended up taking a photojournalism class at Tisch School of the Arts as an elective part of my graduate degree, which is where I met my first two major mentors. One was a photographer and professor named Jeffrey Henson Scales. He was always open to me staying after class and letting me pick his brain that semester. He’s been a big champion of my work, and we’re still really good friends. He’s also the editor of The Sunday New York Times, so he was the person I sent my op-ed to, where I talked about being in a wheelchair and photographed it.
Then, through his class, he had a guest speaker, Ashley Gilbertson, come in who is an incredible photojournalist. He gave a lecture that blew me away, and long story short, he became another informal mentor of mine.
It’s good to have people in your corner in places like that; where they can support you morally, but also help you get things out into the world. I’m also super-fortunate to have people in my life who taught me a level of diligence; who expected high quality work and would tell me that I could do better.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Firstly, my mentors. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I ever got was from a mentor of mine, who said “There’s no deadline on creativity.” It just clicked in my head because I was always in a rush. It made me realise that I don’t have to be.
Then, reading in general. I read a lot of poetry, short stories, fiction and non-fiction too. It goes back to what another mentor told me, which is that if you’re looking for inspiration, don’t look at photography – look anywhere else. Listen to music, watch a movie, read a book. Reading things I was interested in, but had nothing to do with photography often gave me my ideas for new pictures.
Finally, Instagram has been good for a practical reason. I’ve gotten work through Instagram as a platform, even though I’m not huge on social media. I’ve also met some pretty cool people through Instagram, just by them reaching out, or me reaching out to them. I feel like any social media platform can be a tool; you can use it for good but people can also abuse it, too. It’s very powerful.
“If you’re looking for inspiration, don’t look at photography – look anywhere else. Listen to music, watch a movie, read a book.”
What would you say your biggest challenge has been along the way?
Being myself was definitely a challenge when I was starting out. People won’t always be supportive of you doing your own thing. There’s a lot of people who just want to see you do what others are doing, or want you to create work that’s similar to other stuff. But now I feel like I know who I am as a creative person, which is really important. I think it becomes less of a challenge once you start to care less; this is the first year where I’m putting my foot down and saying, “This is what I’m interested in, and I don’t really care if people understand it right away. They’ll get it eventually.”
I didn’t come up with this, but there are three stages of creativity. The first is basically just copying someone. You might photograph or edit the same way, or shoot the same stuff, but you’re essentially just copying them. Then the second stage is emulation, where you start to find your own voice, but you still have that other person in the back of your mind. Finally, the third step is innovation, which is when you break out of that and do your thing. Right now, I feel like I’m still in the late stages of the second step; there’s some emulation that happens, but I’m starting to enter that third phase where I’m not trying to take pictures like anyone else.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Any creative industry has its hurdles when it comes to this. There are opportunities to make money, but sometimes you have to question whether you might want to take on work for a particular company. I’ve had friends who reject work because it doesn’t align with the company’s policies. I’ve done that once.
An important thing to remember is: Say what you need, and if a client isn’t willing to accommodate you, then say no. For example, I had a cool assignment come up this summer, which I had to turn down. They were looking for me to be in New York City for eight days, which would mean I needed a travel budget because many of the train stations aren’t accessible. I would have loved to work on it, but they weren’t able to exceed their budget, and the day rate wasn’t what it needed to be accessible.
It’s hard to say no, especially when you need the money. And some people don’t have the luxury to do that. A dream of mine is to unionise photographers; it’d be like a plot for a movie where all photographers would go on strike and there’d be newspapers with no images.
How might the creative sector and industry be more accessible for disabled people?
Making your work accessible means you can communicate with more people, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to make what you do more accessible. But it’s something I can equate to everyone taking shorter showers because it’s better for the environment; it’s great if individual households do that, but people who own hotels use more water in a day than an individual might use in years. So while the individual matters, if big companies aren’t doing it, then what's the point?
“If you really want someone with a disability to work for you, then you need to be accessible and accommodate them.”
That being said, it’s still important that individuals take action. For example, visuals can be very exclusive. I can’t imagine scrolling through Instagram and not being able to see what’s on there. I’m still figuring out how to make my own work more accessible, like writing detailed photo descriptions on my Instagram posts. It’s not just for virtue signalling, but because I know what it’s like to feel excluded. My process is not perfect, but I’m trying to learn so that I can communicate my message to as many people as possible.
Another good example is what I mentioned previously – if you want to offer someone who has a disability a job, you have to make sure that the person has what they need. In the economy we live in, everyone’s always trying to get the most for the least. But people with disabilities often won’t fit into society in that way; the fact is, a lot of us need certain things to work. So if you really want someone with a disability to work for you, then you need to be accessible and accommodate them.
What’s the best creative and career-related advice you’ve received?
Just be yourself as much as you can. It’s so easy to get caught up in what’s popular, but it’s way more fulfilling to be yourself. I think it also comes back to living in a Western society where we base success on what people are telling you is good, or if it’s making you money. So, for me, it’s kind of radical to say, actually, success is none of that.
It’s definitely not going to be easy, and you’re going to doubt yourself and think about quitting a million times. But if you think solely about what you like to do with no compromises, you're on the right path. That’s where I'm at right now. It’s been really tough, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been creatively. And if that means not making as much money, or getting as many assignments, or having to take on a part-time job and juggle both, I’m cool with that.
What advice would you give someone looking to work in a similar way?
Never stop creating, because that’s where all the exciting stuff happens. Even when you’re making mistakes. A lot of times, things that I thought I had messed up, ended up being the seed that started something new.
And don’t get caught up on what people think of your stuff. It feels good to have the respect of your community, but if everyone suddenly turned their back and was like, “Oh, whatever”, ask yourself if you would keep doing what you’re doing. Try not to get discouraged – for every success I’ve had or every grant, fellowship or publication I’ve received, there’s 100 that I didn’t get.
This article is part of a collaboration with ThisAbility founder Sulaiman Khan, to highlight the Disability Radical Imagination Impact Fund, open to applicants until December 3rd, 2021.
Mention Nolan Ryan Trowe
Mention Sulaiman R. Khan
Interview by Lyla Johnston