One student's talent becomes his passion

Despite cerebral palsy, he takes `remarkable' photos

October 12, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

One of the photographs shows an extreme close-up of a grasshopper sitting on a white rock and appearing to look directly into the camera.

Another photo is a zoomed-in shot of calla lily leaves, capturing green, burgundy and yellow swirls of color.

Among the other photos hanging in Greg Nickey's studio are landscapes, including one that shows a horse farm in Owings Mills on a snowy winter morning.

But when taking photos, Nickey struggles to hold the camera. The 19-year-old Timonium resident has cerebral palsy, a disorder that hampers muscle movements. Still, he has discovered a talent for photography that has evolved into a passion.

"I like that I can just point, click and shoot," he said. "I have problems in math and watching out for myself in streets, but I can take pictures."

After taking pictures for about three years, Nickey recently set up a studio in his parents' home. He's selling framed photos, winning prizes in local competitions, garnering commission work and receiving invitations to exhibits in the area.

Nickey has attended schools that cater to children with developmental disabilities since he was 2 years old, struggling with intellectual difficulties as well as fine-motor skills, language and dexterity, said his mother, Fran Nickey.

"As a baby, Greg reached all of his developmental milestones late, and he couldn't speak two words in a row at age 4," she said.

In the fall of 2003, he first waded into photography when he used a disposable camera to take portraits of players on a youth league soccer team.

"His photos turned out very nice," Fran Nickey said. "But I thought that maybe it was beginner's luck."

In December 2003, he visited the National Arboretum in Washington and took about 40 photos of bonsai trees. Again, his mother thought they were good, but she wanted a second opinion.

She selected some favorites, had them framed and took them to Greg's school, the Owings Mills-based Harbour School at Baltimore.

"When I first walked into his studio, my mouth dropped open," said Jackie Frent, a teacher at the school, where Greg is a senior. "I was amazed. Here's this young man who struggles with dexterity and has intellectual challenges, but yet he can pick up a camera and take absolutely fantastic pictures."

Research shows that cerebral palsy patients who struggle to use muscles experience improvement with practice, said Dr. Mindy Aisen, a neurologist who is the chief executive officer of the United Cerebral Palsy Research Educational Foundation in Washington.

"The old adage, `Practice makes perfect,' really applies here," she said. "Although Greg has difficulty with fine-motor skills and what he's doing is physically difficult for him, he has a deep motivation to do it, so he gets better outcomes."

The young photographer has a sophisticated awareness of detail, Frent said.

"He sees things that other people can't see," she said. "It's amazing to me how he can focus on one particular thing."

Greg has been commissioned to take photographs of school events and has been hired by various county organizations. He won awards at the Maryland State Fair in 2004 and 2005, including a first-place honor in the digital photography category.

"In my 22 years of working with people diagnosed with cerebral palsy, I have never come across anyone who was a photographer," Aisen said. "What he's doing is remarkable."

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