The Kendall College of Art and Design student talks about what he values most in the Kendall program, his portrait project exploring disability and sexuality, and the tools and technology he uses to shoot with a physical disability.
Photograph © Robert Coombs. Visit his profile on PhotoVideoEDU to see more of his work.
PhotoVideoEDU: How did you first get interested in photography?
Robert Coombs: I got my first camera in middle school, a really low-end digital one. By my senior year I was taking a multimedia class, and that’s when I really started to like it. My first two years of college I was studying graphic design, and in my sophomore year I minored in photography. And then in my junior year I switched completely because I fell in love with photography.
PhotoVideoEDU: Why did you fall in love with photography?
Robert Coombs: Graphic design was a little too nit-picky for me. I love photographing people. Even when I’m just hanging out, I’m constantly looking at people and watching how they interact. I’m really good at directing my models in terms of how I want to view them through the camera.
PhotoVideoEDU: Why did you choose Kendall?
Robert Coombs: I had already been accepted to Ferris State University, and then I showed my portfolio to a panel of judges and they gave me a scholarship to go to Kendall. I immediately wanted to go there. It’s a great school. I have one more year left. I’ll get a BFA in fine art photography.
PhotoVideoEDU: Did the injury that led to your disability happen while you were a student at Kendall?
Robert Coombs: Yes. April 4, 2009 was when my injury happened. I took that photo of myself falling [above] the week before it happened, on the same trampoline. That was my final photo project of the year. The following week I turned my portfolio in, and then that Friday I broke my neck on the same trampoline. I was at my gymnastics gym training a double backflip on an Olympic trampoline. I opened up too quickly on the second rotation and fell onto my neck. I was conscious the whole time, so it was kind of a trip. I’m a C4-C5 quadriplegic.
I spent about a month in the ICU and then went to the University of Michigan for rehab. I stayed there for about six weeks and then returned home for a year to figure out what I wanted to do next. While I was home I helped out my art teacher from my high school. I would go there and teach high school students about multimedia. That kind of instilled in me the idea that I needed to go back to school. I returned to Kendall in August 2010 and have been there ever since.
PhotoVideoEDU: Tell us about your process in the studio.
Robert Coombs: I don’t know that it’s that much different from other photographers’, except that I don’t actually hold the camera. Kendall hires another student to help me out in the studio, so I usually have an assistant. I also have a lot of friends who will help me out on any photo shoot at the drop of a hat, so that’s really great.
I usually use one of the school’s cameras, tether it to my MacBook Pro, and use Capture One software. That allows me to operate the camera and click the shutter. I have what’s called a Jouse2, which is a mouthpiece that I plug in via USB. It’s basically a joystick that I control with my mouth. Everything I do, I do from my computer. When the picture pops up on my screen I can point out what I want changed and show what I want in the frame.
With the new Profoto Air lights I can control all the light settings right from my computer, which is huge for me because I don’t have to have my assistants running back and forth.
PhotoVideoEDU: What have you found most valuable about the Kendall program?
Robert Coombs: They really push concepts, which is great, because it makes you think about why you’re putting certain things in the shot, about why you’re doing what you’re doing. They’re also pretty technical, and they teach you the whole spectrum of photography. It’s a very good balance between traditional and digital. I think it benefits you a lot to understand where photography came from and where it’s heading. A lot of students still use film, and 4x5 is my absolute favorite format in photography. It’s a little hard for me to do it now because I can’t control the camera.
PhotoVideoEDU: Have the unexpected changes in your life influenced your photography?
Robert Coombs: Yes, I’m more interested in other physical disabilities. Some people have had them all along, so I want to shed some light on their perspective too. I never gave it a thought before my accident. So I want to do work about the stigma of disabled people in public.
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you feel that there is a stigma about disabilities?
Robert Coombs: There’s such a huge stigma on the sexuality part of it, so my most recent work has been about that—disabled people’s sexuality. It’s a huge aspect of people’s lives, and I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked if I can still have sex. The general public has no clue. That’s a huge aspect of everyone’s lives. Disabled people—they want to have sex. But it’s pushed under the rug.
PhotoVideoEDU: What kinds of responses have you gotten so far to your portrait series on disability and sexuality?
Robert Coombs: I get a lot of feedback from people who say, “It’s crazy, I never think about that when I see disabled people.” I’m also collecting statements from the people I photograph, giving their interpretations of dating and what it’s like for them. It’s really interesting to hear what they have to say. It’s important that people know these things so that they’re not afraid. I’m a complete open book when I go out on dates or am with friends.
I’m showing my work at ArtPrize this year. It’s a huge art festival in Grand Rapids. I’m going to have 12 images of disabilities and sexuality all matted and framed. I’m showing at the Fountain Street Church, so I’m really excited about that. They have cash prizes!
PhotoVideoEDU: Do you have a favorite photo that you’ve taken?
Robert Coombs: The photo of me where I’m in my underwear and it looks like I’m falling—that one is my absolute favorite. It reminds me of how it felt jumping on the trampoline, and I really miss doing that.
PhotoVideoEDU: In your self-portraits, it looks like you have some tattoos. What are they?
Robert Coombs: I have three tattoos. The first one is the “Hello, My Name Is” tattoo. I left it blank so that my friends and other people could write things. I thought it was a fun interactive tattoo. My second tattoo is a 4x5 negative. Like I said, I love 4x5. I got those two before my accident. A year after the accident I was leaving Mary Free Bed, the rehab hospital, and my mom and I saw a quote by the elevators that said, “Giving up is the ultimate tragedy.” We thought that was such a cool quote, and that day we went and got tattoos. My mom and dad and myself, we all got that tattoo.
PhotoVideoEDU: What are you thinking about doing after graduation?
Robert Coombs: I’d like to do a lot of fashion work. I’m hoping to work for fashion designers. I’ve also thought about getting a master’s and teaching at the college level. I’m really open, though. I’m not dead-set on anything. I know something will come my way.