We’ve all experienced the challenge of choosing from 31 flavors at Baskin Robbins. So imagine how Tom Olin must have felt when we asked him to choose his favorite photograph. He’s shot almost one half million pictures of the disability rights movement. Advocates say Tom Olin is the only person who has dedicated his life to chronicling the disability rights movement on film over the long haul. He’s been there every step of the way through the long struggle, capturing the cause on film since 1983.
Leaders of the disability rights movement know Tom Olin well. They’ve worked hand in hand with him at rallies and demonstrations- advocates capturing the attention of lawmakers, and Olin capturing the events and emotion in black and white. Disability rights pioneer Justin Dart has the highest praise for Olin and his work. Dart says, “Tom Olin is a great, dedicated patriot and photographer of our movement. His contributions will live long after the pyramids of the pharaohs have crumbled to dust.”
Janine Bertram Kemp has also worked closely with Olin through the years. She puts his work in a historical context. “Tom Olin has dedicated his life’s work to a powerful photo chronicle of the disability rights movement. For years he worked for no monetary remuneration. Without his photo journalistic efforts, we would have lost a major part of our history. Think back to the African-American civil rights movement and those powerful photos of Sheriff Rainey and the dogs and the power hoses attacking African-American demonstrators in the South. Tom Olin has done similar work for our movement.”
If you look for Olin at a disability rights demonstration, he’ll be the big lanky guy with a big smile on his face. Lucy Gwin is editor of Mouth Magazine, now in it’s 12th year. Olin worked there from 1995 to 1999 and lived next door to Gwin for a while. Gwin says it’s fun to watch her old friend at work. “I met Tom at an ADAPT action. He’s real tall and he’s always on the edge of the crowd, making himself taller, shorter, wider and elastic. He’s hard to miss.”
Olin explains why he’s a human rubber band behind the lens, as he stretches, dips and turns for just the right angle. “A lot of people are in wheelchairs, and I don’t want to block their views. I want people to be able to see everything while I take the photos. For them, to see and feel the event is so important to them.”
This photographer turned historian says he did not have a camera growing up in Sandusky, in the rural thumb of Michigan. His first camera was a 110. Through the years, Olin became a video photographer doing production shoots. Then he took a 35 mm photography course and developed his life’s work. Olin’s journey to chronicle the disability rights movement in unforgettable images, began in 1983.
Olin modestly recalls one of his favorite photos from the early years of his work. “It was a picture of Bob Kafka’s hands handcuffed behind his wheelchair, and so you could see his hands and the wheelchair with the cuffs. It said so much. It was powerful in the sense that it was very strong. You knew he was arrested for standing up for his rights.” Olin still has that photo.
There have been some rough spots getting his work done through the years. Some people don’t want you taking pictures when police are getting a little heavy handed on the front lines. Olin recalls, “Back in the early days, in the 80’s the police used a lot of force. We got pushed down a lot. A San Francisco policeman tried to break my camera but couldn’t- it was like a tank. He moved on. Anything could happen.” Olin has never been hurt, and these days he says the police tend to be a little more restrained.
Despite the heavy hands of some police officers, Olin has managed to get some unforgettable photos in the trenches. His Mouth Magazine colleague, Lucy Gwin says she can be right in the middle of the same demonstration as Olin, and he’ll see photographs she just doesn’t see. “It’s what he’s made to do. It’s just what he does and he fits it perfectly. Tom cannot tell a story in words- ask him what happened yesterday, and he can’t tell you, but he can bring you a picture that will tell you more than a panel of experts. There’s no photo on the roll that you want to throw out. He’s just that good.”
Olin’s work has already been displayed in the Smithsonian. One photo was from an action in Baltimore and another an action in Las Vegas. His photos were featured in the museum’s Disability Rights Exhibit in 1990, as part of the tenth anniversary celebration of the ADA. The Smithsonian approached Olin a few years ago about the possibility of setting up a traveling display of his work. It could still happen.
Jennifer Burnett has worked with Olin for about a decade at various demonstrations, actions and conferences. Burnett says Olin turned out some dramatic and history capturing photos in that time. She says Olin was at the first curb cut in Los Angeles in the early 80’s- “the people’s curb cut.” He took dramatic pictures during ADAPT vs. Skinner, when demonstrators stormed Philadelphia wearing colonial costumes and took over the Liberty Bell through street theater. The Never Surrender photo, one of the most well known within the disability rights movement, has Olin’s name on the back of it. When ADAPT demonstrators crawled up the steps of the US Capitol to push for the ADA to become law, Olin was there. And Olin pulled out the camera for the Not Dead Yet rally in front of the US Supreme Court in the mid-90’s.
Burnett says she’s seen Olin’s work mature through the years. “He has a lot of activist photos, but he also gets to White House meetings (to photograph them). He has broadened himself and he does a lot of different kinds of things now.”
Diane Coleman of Not Dead Yet, met Olin in 1971. She was staying in a rehabilitation hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan after back surgery, and Olin worked there as an orderly. Coleman says Olin is a genius with a camera, but he serves another important role in the disability rights movement. “There’s another ‘key player’ factor, and that’s Tom’s interpersonal networking. Tom gets to know people, and to understand their roles in the disability movement on a very human level. Then he introduces people to each other who may be working on the same things, or may be able to work together to advance the disability rights mission. He’s usually where the action is in the disability movement, and he brings people together for the cause.”
Coleman says Olin brings a lot of passion to his work. She remembers talking to him in the early 80’s when he began his journey to chronicle a movement on film. “He found the disability world to be full of intensity, meaning, excitement and human growth, and a world deserving of justice. Once he returned to that world, he found a real home, probably for life. At first, he became a personal assistant and a special education teacher’s aide. Then he got involved in the political aspects of the movement, and the rest is history.”
Janine Bertram Kemp sees a noble idealism in Olin’s photos. “He does have a passion inside of him. Tom believes that if our society opens enough to include people with disabilities, barriers will fall so that all people will be included. He has made it his life’s work to help that happen.”
Olin says he wants to keep on snapping shots in the middle of the action. “I don’t burn out. That passion is still there. It’s interesting to be able to see the empowerment of people through the work you do. It gives you a sense of purpose.”
Olin has a walk-in closet filled with photos, and he’d like to see them put into an archive to be preserved and possibly displayed. He’d also like to gather more photos on the disability rights movement from all across America to keep them all together in one place. “The history of the disability rights movement is important. Right now, we lose pictures every day within our community. We lose photos to people who don’t recognize the value of them.”
Advocates are working with Olin to try to get his historic and striking collection of images into a book, so people can learn more about the struggle for rights. Olin hopes that project will come together soon and a book will be published within a couple of years. Some say that book would be Olin’s legacy, a way for the rest of us to see how he’s captured the cause on film through the years.
Olin’s old colleague and friend, Lucy Gwin, ribbed the photo journalist one last time when we asked her about an Olin legacy. “I hope he leaves his negatives in some order that we can figure out when he took the pictures- let that be his legacy.”
Crippower@aol.com is Tom Olin’s email address.