Annette John-Hall: Disability can't slow down photography dynamo

A victim of random gun violence which paralyzed from the waist down when he was 8 years old, Jaleel King has had to deal with a string of hardships since. He chooses not to dwell on the negative. Instead, he started his own photographer business and focuses on love. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
A victim of random gun violence which paralyzed from the waist down when he was 8 years old, Jaleel King has had to deal with a string of hardships since. He chooses not to dwell on the negative. Instead, he started his own photographer business and focuses on love. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 13, 2012

Jaleel King is quite the inspiration.

Folks who know him still marvel at the way the Art Institute of Philadelphia graduate invented himself as a respected, in-demand, and completely self-sufficient commercial photographer.

Let's face it, achieving success isn't easy, even for the hale and hearty. So you can imagine how difficult it's been for someone who suffered the kind of life-changing injury King did.

In 1984, when King was 8 and living in the Tasker Homes in South Philly, pellets from a sawed-off shotgun ripped through his kidney, lung, and liver and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

He's had to deal with a string of hardships since - endless surgeries, compromised independence, struggles with care, and, maybe worst of all, society's disdainful stigmatization of him.

He chooses not to dwell on the negative. Instead, he focuses on love.

"I love the idea of [photographing] people who love each other," says King, 36, who specializes in weddings.

Because King is so personable and his story so compelling, he's been featured in plenty of stories about violence. But it wasn't until he met fellow photographer Mike Allebach while both were volunteering for Help Portrait - a national project that provides free photographs for people in need - that King started getting the professional recognition he deserved.

All because Allebach, inspired by his new friend, shot a short video about King that found its way on to a popular photography blog. Which in turn caused Help Portrait founder Jeremy Cowart to tweet the video to his thousands of followers, which his followers then retweeted to thousands of their followers.

Talk about a social-media brush fire.

"I didn't know the video would take off like it did," says Allebach, the Philadelphia organizer of Help Portrait. "I just know there's something very positive and special about Jaleel. The thing that blows most people away is that he's an excellent photographer - regardless of how he does it."

Violence out of nowhere

King rolls up to his desk in his rugless North Philly apartment, where two giant computer screens capture his attention most days.

Even if he could walk, he'd be a diminutive guy. But his smile is warm, and his grip, strong and sure, automatically puts strangers at ease.

"A lot of people are afraid to ask me what happened," King says. "They assume I did something I wasn't supposed to do."

It was July 1. King and his cousin, like a million other kids enjoying the holiday weekend, were setting off firecrackers when James Frager came out of his apartment with a sawed-off shotgun to quiet the noise.

"If you want to hear something loud," Frager said, "listen to this."

King woke up in the hospital on the Fourth of July, tubes and wires running through his body. The first thing he heard was firecrackers.

"There's always days," King says now. "But I can't let it consume me. I have friends who are in jail or buried.

"Makes me wonder who or where I would be if this hadn't happened to me."

Unique gift

Through the years, his photographer's eye, along with his own disability, has afforded him a unique gift of observation.

"I see how the old white man gives up his seat on the bus to the pregnant black girl when nobody else does," King says. "I see people who walk through life smiling through their pain. I wonder, 'How many people are going to work or school who have lost a loved one?' "

Yet empathy didn't necessarily come naturally for King. He's grateful that his work over the last three years for Help Portrait has taught him how to be more caring.

See, one of the first groups of people Help Portrait provided photographs for was at Inglis House, a residential facility for disabled adults.

As a teen, King lived in Inglis House for a year. He was admittedly ambivalent about coming back to photograph folks in wheelchairs like himself.

He had to ask himself: "Am I ready for that?"

He's learned how to prepare. Now when he rolls into Inglis House for Help Portrait's annual shoot in December, King will be the most popular photographer there.

At least, that's what the folks at Inglis House tell him.

"They say, 'I don't want no able-bodied person taking my picture. I want you to take my picture.' "


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter at Annettejh.

|
|
|
|
|