Making sense of life with Nolan Ryan Trowe

In projects including Revelations in a Wheelchair, US photographer Nolan Ryan Trowe has shone a light on some of the narratives that are missing from the mainstream. Here, he talks about being labelled and how photography helps him understand himself

Four years ago, when US photographer Nolan Ryan Trowe was 23, he suffered a spinal cord injury while cliff diving on the Yuba River in northern California. The accident left him mostly paralysed from the waist down, and he now switches between using a wheelchair and walking with two canes, having regained some movement.

Photography had always been a part of Trowe’s life and at age 15, he got his first point-and-shoot camera. “I took it everywhere with me because it could just fit in my pocket. I was shooting everything – my friends, family, skateboarding, sunsets. I used it like a visual diary,” Trowe tells CR.

After his injury, he stopped taking pictures for a while, but when he went to graduate school in New York, he decided to buy a camera with his student loan. Again, Trowe began photographing his life and his friends, but it felt different this time. “I was looking at my life more critically and the people who I was with more critically,” Trowe explains.

“It was different because I was disabled, and so were all my friends. I was in that community, and while I was doing what I usually did with my photography, people were telling me it was important, that people don’t normally get to see these kinds of pictures.”

Top: Self-portrait at the West 4th Street Courts in New York City, 2020; Above: Self-portrait, 2020. All images © Nolan Ryan Trowe/VII Mentor Program

Trowe’s world view had shifted and his photography began to reflect that. Working predominantly in black and white, the photographer’s stark images often capture intimate moments of daily life. One of his first projects after his injury, Revelations in a Wheelchair, was published in the New York Times in 2018.

Trowe took photographs that showed people what New York looked like from a wheelchair. On the streets of the city, he experienced both kindness and cruelty from strangers, with little middle ground, and he also realised how inaccessible New York City really is. “My experience has woken me up to the fact that rights for people with disabilities are far behind where they should be,” he told the New York Times at the time. “It has given me a new vantage point, and a new appreciation for the many people with disabilities who must struggle to conduct their daily lives in a world that has not taken the steps to accommodate them.”