Rehabilitating Art.

In Pep Talks, The Italian Incident by David50 Comments

I saw this man in Ethiopia 4 years ago. Kneeling on one leg, missing the other, letting nothing stand in the way of doing what he was there to do. Not the strongest photograph I’ve ever made, but man do I like this guy’s style.

I can’t begin to properly tell you how my time in physical rehab is affecting me, but I’d like to try. Every day I am surrounded by nurses, physiotherapists, and a crew of misfits missing limbs, learning to walk or perform basic tasks again. Each day I walk laps in the gym, beside others, all wrestling with a piece of the puzzle, something standing between who they once were and who they are becoming. Some are having prosthetic legs fitted, some are taking dizzying first steps, others are doing things with two prosthetic legs that I struggled to do even before my accident. Everyone cheers each other on. Everyone stops to smile or talk. Everyone faces what they can not do with a disarming (forgive the pun) degree of humour, knowing if they don’t laugh the only alternative is tears, and they’re honest about those too. No one here is “all that and a bag of chips.” No one here is a “pro” and there are no “amateurs”. There is no fixation on gear anymore than for the purposes of finding what works. Some use chairs, some use crutches, some canes or $60,000 prosthetics. There are no camps. Everyone I have met cares about one thing. They want to walk.

So we show up every day and do the work. For some that’s calf exercises, or ankle mobilizations, for others it’s repeating one step over and over until the mechanics become muscle memories and stick. No one here does it because they love rehab. They do it because they just want to walk.

My PT keeps asking me if I want to walk the gym. She’s not really asking but likes to let me pretend I have a choice. I keep telling her I won’t learn to walk by not walking. So I walk it. Over and over again. Last week my goal was to walk a kilometer. I walked it, and then some. A couple times. There are guys here that could do twice as much in half the time. Others who would give anything to walk as well as I now do. But they don’t compare, they do the work. And they celebrate hard when they get there. And then they move on to the next goal. They don’t sit on their laurels, though if anyone ever deserved to, it’s them

I find myself wishing we all, including myself, approached photography, maybe life even, with as much grace; wishing we could find a place where there were no comparisons, no gear addictions. Where nothing matters but the people and the photographs, where we cheer each other on in their victories and encourage them in their struggles. Where the gear is nothing but a prosthetic limb we endure as much as it accomplishes its purpose. Where comparisons and bragging and all the ego-drivel is irrelevant and seen for what it is – wasted energy that might otherwise be spent on making art. Can you imagine the art we might make if we were more concerned about being ourselves and doing the work we alone have been given, if we showed up and just made photographs, day after day, without regard for the brand names on our cameras or who said what about our photographs on Flickr or 500px?

I’m really not going anywhere with this; I just wish you could be here in this amazing place with me. Hard? Yes. Struggles? Absolutely. I don’t mean at all to paint rehab with a romantic brush. It’s sweat and hurt and everyone there came to it honestly – through pain and calamity. Some from roadside explosives in Afghanistan, some on motorcycles, others through the betrayal of their own body. Life has rubbed them hard, but you should see them shine.

Some details on other things, for the curious. I’m about to begin week 3 in rehab and have a hard push to the end because they boot my ass to the curb on Sept 01. Next weekend my father and I are driving down to Jeffrey Chapman’s place in upstate NY to pick up Jessie, brought all the way from Atlanta on a flatbed by Vasily Lantukh, for which I am very grateful, and oh am I looking forward to having the pieces of my life reunited. On September 07 I fly to Cambodia and Laos for the first trip since the accident. After the adventure in Laos and Angkor I’m sitting on a beach in Thailand for a week before coming home to tinker with Jessie and get ready for trips to Oaxaca, Roatan, Antarctica, and Africa. And in there somewhere I’ve got one more surgery to fine-tune my ankle. So excited to get back to traveling, but oh my gosh is it about to get busy!


  1. “I just wish you could be here in this amazing place with me.”

    I have been … – you’ve just been too busy re-learning to walk, to notice. I’m the one grinning insanely in your direction.

  2. Thanks for another great and thoughtful post David. I love how “real” you always are and just put yourself out there. That is what attracts us, your fans to keep coming back and buying your books!

  3. David,
    I read often but post rarely, though I ought to more. I appreciate your perspective not only on your rehab but on life and art. Thanks

  4. It’s wonderful how you find the positive in your situation, it’s a great inspiration to others, including myself to not sweat the small stuff.

    I, along with you wish the whole world would see the power of working together and supporting each other in all we do.

    Keep up the good work and keep on smiling though the pain

  5. just discovered your work recently, been reading your blog, wish you get better soon. Have fun in Thailand, was there the last year before all this photography fever came to me, made nice shots, still I wish I had my current DSLR on that trip.

  6. Wow David — For some reason that post hit me in just the right way at the right time.

    My cousin went through a long and painful rehab after a serious brain injury from a bad decision on an ATV. Poor guy could never catch a break or make a good decision, especially in his teens and twenties.

    Honestly I wish he had half of your attitude during rehab. (Not to mention most people in normal life) Only when he came around and started putting in the work in life did things turn around. It was still hard, but it was at least going somewhere.

    Anyway, thanks for the candid insight into your world right now. This has all got to be way harder than it looks 🙂

    Keep it up man.

  7. Author

    Jens – Good question. The short answer is that much of my travel happens for the Within The Frame Photographic Adventures. Often I’ll tag a short trip on to the end of those, as I’m already there. So for example, I’m in Oaxaca for a tour with clients, but I’ll spend a week in Honduras afterwards – cheap flights as I’m already close. Some of my travel is for assignment work in which case clients pay, and pay well. And the rest is income my company, Craft&Vision pays me. Remember too, that I have no home, and traveling is cheaper than you think when you aren’t servicing a mortgage or renting a place. As for health care, I live in Canada, so it’s free. I have sponsors for much of my gear. I’ve made sound decisions about how I spend my money, how I structure my business for taxes, and how I save that money. One bankruptcy 5 years ago was enough to snap me into shape financially – the desire to never go through that again has made a better student of me on these matters than I ever imagined. But the short answer is: it took me a long time, hard work, and good choices, just like everyone else. Hope this is helpful.

  8. What a strong post, very inspiring! I myself do not have the option of rehab since my ailments are just a mystery to the doctors. I’ve accepted it and stopped worrying about it. You start to live your life as if your illness is as set in stone as the blue sky on sunny days which is a perfectly alright way to cope. One doesn’t realize how important the own physical health is until it’s gone. And that’s what transforms you, makes you strong and struggle through rehab, because giving up is just not an option. I like your take on it wishing that everyone would just cheer other people on for their victories. I so agree!

  9. Hi David,

    Trips to Thailand, Oaxaca, Roatan, Antarctica, and Africa. It’s kind of personal, but one day I hope you will do a blog entry on how you manage to afford traveling to all these exotic locations. I can’t imagine how by selling e-books you manage to support this lifestyle. You always seem to have the top of the line equipment ( e.g. two Nikon D3S bodies, Jessie, camping equipment, numerous GoPro cameras etc. ) when you travel. For example, I looked into the cost of an AutoHome rooftop tent and they are very expensive. You were living in Vancouver and yet you are somehow able to access expensive medical care, physiotherapy and rehabilitation in Ontario. I am a photographer and I have to save for months just to buy a new lens or a tripod. I read your blog on a regular basis and I am mystified on how you are able to afford all the equipment and traveling that you do.

  10. David, You bough me to tears !!!
    and now I have lots to think about, in how I approach my photography.
    It’s Great to hear you are making wonderful progress.
    Be Well… Cheers

  11. Thanks David. You are always inspiring but maybe now more than ever. I was at the funeral of my great, great aunt yesterday. Her husband was told he would never walk again following a car accident in 1945. While he was hospitalized for 6+ months, she would visit daily and “exercise” his legs for him. While he always had a noticeable limp, he did walk for 60 more years.

  12. Incredible post, David. I have been through this myself. Your words brought me right back there-not in a bad way-but in a proud way of what I accomplished there and what I saw others accomplishing. You are right-everyone comes by it honestly It sounds like you are making extraordinary progress if you’re already doing all that walking. I hope you’re not feeling it too much later in the day and that you are stronger for it the next day. Best of luck to you on the next piece of surgery and happy travels.

  13. Sharing this post with students, David, to inspire them. Your progress and gratitude within it are life -affirming. Thank you.

  14. Really pleased to hear of your progress and the mutual encouragement of the rehab centre. I had six months walking with a limp and stick waiting for a knee op and that was more than enough bother so I take my hat off to y’all. One small quibble tho’ – the only way I can imagine describing one of the courageous folk there (including yourself) a misfit would be if someone accidently tried to strap on another person’s prosthetic limb 🙂

  15. Can you imagine the art we might make if we were more concerned about being ourselves and doing the work we alone have been given…

    [standing ovation]

    creatives around the world should read this post – painters, photographers, mixed-media artists, sculptors, writers, filmakers . . .

    thanx David for sharing your brilliant observations made during a time of personal challenge

  16. The next time someone gasps in horror when I say I’ve been too busy working on my photography to post to flickr, I’m pointing them over to this blog post. I’m so glad someone else gets it.
    Will keep you in our thoughts as you finish the last “leg” (sorry) of your rehab and head towards brighter things!

  17. Ok “borg” is code for “I am drinking Ziggy Zoggy beer while typing!”

  18. Hey there,
    I like contemplating your vision of a “just do it” attitude applied to photography. This is a post that makes me appreciate attitude, hardcwork, humilty, focus, and the ability to keep it all in perspective. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and feelings.

    Of course, you have graciously been reminding me in heartfelt, creative writings borg before and after the accident. You now have taken the wind out of all excuses thanks to walking the walk!

    Glad you will be reunited soon with Jesse!

    original ways

  19. Thanks Morgana, but I promise I’m doing nothing without the support of my physiotherapist. She’s brilliant at what she does and we’ve had long talks about my limits. I’m interested in pushing my limits not exceeding them. 😉

  20. I’m glad you’re making process and your travel plans sounds really exciting but please make sure you take the time to let your body heal at it’s own pace. I totally get that you’re itching to get back out there just please be kind to yourself too. 🙂

  21. “In order to write about life, first you must live it!”
    – Ernest Hemingway

    As always, you are an inspiration to others David.

  22. I love how you approach your situation with honesty and grace.

    I was hit by a drunk driver in 2001, only a few months after graduating college and had 9 months of therapy. It was so painful and hard but all I wanted to do was to feel “normal” again and have less pain. The focus was on recovery.

    You are so right in the juxtaposition you made with photography. I dunno if people will ever see this art (or greater society in general) without seeing it through a capitalist and competitive eye. It would be great if it happened though.

    Best wishes to you in rehab.

  23. Pingback: Inspiring… | Karen Cooke Photography

  24. The more I learn about creative processes the more I understand that it really comes down to – as you have pointed out numerous times: Do the work. And, yes, I think it’s like that for all aspects of life. But your assertion that we have so much to learn from you guys at the rehab, that is not compare between each other, not get caught up in equipment, and just be positive and helpful to each other is taking it to another level. Lovely words. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had the same urgency and desire for instance for creating as you guys have for getting back on your feet? Not wanting for anyone to have to go through rehab, but there is definitely a lesson to be learn. I am impressed by the shier determination you show. How can this be transformed into a similar determination for aspects of life that are less necessary for our day to day functionality? Or maybe it can only be learned the hard way?

  25. I just recently watched the movie “Peaceful Warrior”. It is about college gymnast Dan Millman who had an accident and shattered his leg. It was about his quest to overcome…. I am quite blessed to not have had to endure the physical pain of such an injury. Your blog posts and movies like “Peaceful Warrior” give us a little insight and inspiration to overcome emotional pains which can be just as life altering and debilitating.

    In the 90’s, I took 35mm classes. I battled the “blues” a bit and lost all inspiration. Now that I have finally decided to return to the shutter, the art has surpassed me. I am 39, returning to school on Monday for the first time in years and started a blog about it. I only have 3 posts with one comment (LOL)!!! Quite frightful to start a blog and share with the world! I will think of this blog as I walk into my Graphic Arts 1 and Intro to Digital Photography classes next week. One foot in front of the other. step. step. step…..

  26. Agree with Dianne – I actually thought it was very powerful. Kind of interesting that you made that statement right before going into detail on how little we should care about comments and feedback on places like Flickr and 500px.

    For what it’s worth though – your thoughts, insights, and perspective always helps to keep me grounded (as it does to many others I am sure…) Thanks for the update and keep on keepin’ on! 🙂

  27. Fly And Soar David! Good Luck And Thanks For The Reminders And Inspirations!

  28. Oh my! So touching, tears even came to my eyes.
    You’re brave, generous and you do know how to to put things in perspective. No wonder you are a humanitarian photographer. We should all learn to be more humble.
    I translated your post into Portuguese for my mother to read. She fell 2 years ago, had a hip prosthesis which went wrong, than a 2nd one and is finally getting into terms with walking, still using a crutch. She loves to travel the world and it has been extremely hard on her.
    Thanks for sharing your feelings, I’m sure great achievements are lying ahead.

  29. “Not the strongest photograph I’ve ever made…”

    I find it interesting that you ‘qualified’ your image with those words. That’s so unlike you. I didn’t look at it and see a ‘weak’ picture.

    I love your post today. We need those reminders of priorities and the nitty gritty of life and the strength of human spirit. Thank you, once again, for encouragement. I’m excited to follow the next leg of your journey as you reunite with Jessie and travel again.

  30. Another inspiring post! Your posts and a few people I have met this month are such amazing motivators. Last week I was on a 6 hour train ride and opposite me sat a young woman with her guide dog. No-one else with her. She spent the trip knitting!

    New friends I stayed with are in their late 70s (her) and mid-80s (him). They sail their own small yacht every chance they get. She returned to university after retirement and studied anthropology and now travels the world to visit and live with remote tribal people, writing books and articles on common themes in beliefs. They both work hard to support different charities and also work in their community.

    Your posts, and these examples show me that so much is possible if you have the attitude right!

  31. I read this one slowly, deeply.

    I really appreciate you writing these things, David. Thank you.

    Very best to all of you in rehab. Please tell them we said so.


  32. Oh David, I am so happy for you and all your new buddies – it so encourages me to read your blog and hear your story – Blessings and Peace, Barbara

  33. Dave, you’ve painted a great picture of how life should work. We all have our everyday pain, some physical, some mental, some emotional, but it’s an amazing thing when we realize that we’re not the only ones feeling it. We’re not alone in our struggles and that connection can eliminate all the other noise, if we allow it. Great post. Glad tp hear you’re progressing well and getting back in the game soon!

  34. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this beautiful and inspirational article. Your message really hit me. I need to walk for exercise however I complain because it’s too hot, I’m not in the mood, etc. Your words about your struggle and those of the people in rehab just to walk have changed my attitude. My prayers are with you all.

  35. David, Wonderful words, this really resonated with me. You have me thinking…
    Glad to hear you’ll be on the road again soon!

  36. Wow! Beautiful words beautifully written! And oh so true! Thank you for sharing your lessons with us, David. Hopefully we’ll learn from others mistakes and make some new ones instead of repeating them. :c) God bless you on your last week there! May He continue to shine in and through you! :c) Thank you again for the inspiration!

  37. I will add my Halleluiah to Cathy’s comment #4. When I turned 50, a few years ago now, I was digging out of a second critical illness that had put my life on hold yet again. I got the usual cultural comments about reaching that age. My choice – and yes, it is a choice – to respond was “wow, I am only 50, and now I know what some of the questions are, and I have time to figure out the answers”. What a blessing it has been to have become aware of what is truly valuable in life and to have the opportunity to live my life from that perspective. You express that so beautifully in this post I look forward to seeing it manifest in your already exquisite photography.

  38. Oh how I look forward to your attitude adjustment, from the heart and a place most don’t know, blog entries. What a gift you have with words. Continued wishes with your rehab in treatment and then on your own.

  39. Jia yo David (if you ever learn any Chinese it’ll be one of the first things you learn – basically means go for it).

    A friend of mine had to have his leg amputated in late 2009. He’s a street photographer, father of young twins and school teacher. I’m sure rehab isn’t/wasn’t easy for him but he’s been back in the classroom for a year, is still shooting great street photos (although he switched from film to digital during his recovery) and is busy chasing after his boys. His attitude, like yours, has been inspiring to see.

  40. I was just thinking of you the other day. I used the quote: “The world breaks everyone, but some grow stronger at the breaks”, by Hemmingway, (no pun intended by the way) and I realized just how much this fits your life. No matter what happens to you, can’t find the muse, fall off a wall, or any other number of things, you become stronger and better for it! Because of your work and words, I seldom say no to opportunity. Thanks David, you always know what to say.

  41. Thanks for sharing your journey through this. It’s been a long road for you, with even more to go, but your spirit and the way you have handled such a difficult experience underscores what an inspiration you are to so many. I hope it gets easier and as you reassemble your life you find the whole thing has been one of those events that shapes our future selves for the better. Best of luck to you in the coming weeks for less pain.

  42. Halleluiah to paragraph 4. Very well said… as someone who’s been through extensive cognitive and physical rehab, this is the essence of how my life is now. Gratitude and joyfulness expressed in an image.

  43. What a fabulous post David. Those of us who have never experienced rehab or even the slightest loss of walking can’t even imagine what you are going through, we can only cheer you on and encourage you. You have come so far in such a short time, although I am sure it feels like years for you. Congratulations!

  44. Thanks for sharing the whole journey… and if I say I’m looking forward to seeing what you shoot in the next year or so, it’s not like your work Before the Fall was anything to sneeze at. But oh-so-clearly you have been changed… and that will change your work. I’ve been inspired – thank you.

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