Monday, March 30, 2009

“Look Ma, No Hands!”

“Look Ma, no hands!” That is what we used to exclaim when we were about to do something particularly daring like peddling our bikes without using the handlebars. For Nicaraguan American Catholic singer/songwriter Tony Melendez, who was born a thalidomide baby without arms, those words have summarized his whole life.

Tony could have used his disability as an excuse to retreat from the world. Instead he is constantly exposed in concert after concert, even in a historical performance for Pope John Paul II. The audience begins by being curious to see how he will play the guitar with his feet. They are mesmerized as he shows how he gets around his disability, even playing frisbee with his brother and manager José. As the concert progresses, they are won over by his fervent singing and preaching. In the end they forget that he has no arms, like the little girl who patiently waited backstage at the Encuentro Católico for Tony to sign a book and DVD for her. Even this photographer, who took an hour’s worth of shots of him, reached out to shake Tony’s hand and then retreated into an embarrassed “gasho” of gratitude (I’m too reserved for a big abrazo with a married stranger).

But the moment I most regret in the Encuentro also came during Tony’s concert. During a break, a friend helped Tony drink some water and motioned to me to take a photo. Reflexively, I took the snapshot. It was a good photo technically, but I deleted it. It was wrong. It felt wrong even as I obeyed the order. It was disrespectful of Tony and I wish I could take that moment back. Tony, if you are reading this, I’m sorry for that intrusive photo.

When I have had the opportunity to mentor young people in computers, one important lesson I try to teach is that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. If we can’t use our technical and artistic skills in an ethical manner, they are worthless. Not having arms and hands is less of a disability than having a head and heart but not using them.

In the end I was grateful for Deacon Sergio who had not witnessed the awkward moment and asked me to take a regular “fan” photo of him and Tony. I wasn’t sure he would want to see this photographer again, but Tony graciously posed in the VIP lounge, even suggesting a camera angle to reduce the glare, and we exchanged some brief words. That’s a photo I’m proud of and happy to share with you.

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