The Best Fall of my Life by Patricia Lay-Dorsey

Much of the time living with a disability is a big fat bother. But there are moments touched with magic. Like the early evening I was out taking self portraits for the photographic essay workshop David Alan Harvey and Jim Nachtwey were co-teaching during the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville.

I had turned the dial to self-timer, pressed the shutter release button and lowered my camera down to the red brick pavement. The light was good and I intended to get a shot of me riding my scooter up the hill in this quaint Virginia town. Knowing I only had ten seconds before the shutter would release, I pulled my scooter accelerator lever down hard.

As if a noose had tightened around my neck, I was yanked towards the left wheel of my scooter and thrown to the ground. I immediately knew what had happened because I’d experienced it once before: the long end of my neck scarf had gotten caught under the wheel. Whenever this happens I remember the famous dancer Isadora Duncan who had died like this in 1927, but she was riding in a sports car not a scooter.

I heard myself cry out in pain. Two men came running over to help. I calmly instructed them on how best to lift me back into my scooter seat: “Stand behind me, put your hands under my armpits and lift me until I’m standing upright. Keep holding tight because I can’t walk on my own, then swing me over into the seat of my scooter.”

The fellow was strong so the lift went smoothly. His friend saw my camera on the pavement and brought it over to me. I thanked them and they walked away.

It was only then that my brain kicked in. Could I have captured the fall with my camera? I caught my lower lip in my teeth and quickly hit the playback button. There on the LCD screen was my body lying on the pavement, partially obscured by the rear wheels of my scooter, my mouth open in a cry. I was in clear focus with the foreground blurred and the whole frame perfectly composed. As if it had been set up.

I was so excited I had to share it with someone. My “lifter” was talking on his cell phone in front of a nearby restaurant. I scooted up and showed him the picture, but he didn’t seem to get it. I didn’t want to bother him so I smiled and scooted down to the pedestrian mall. Earlier I’d seen a classmate about a block away with his camera gear slung around his neck. I soon found him again. “Monte, Monte, you’ve GOT to see this!!!” He understood.

When I showed the picture and told the story to David, Jim and the class during our daily critique the next morning, David, who had been mentoring me on my “Falling Into Place” self portrait project for a year, let out a loud “Whoop!” and came over to give me a congratulatory kiss. Yes, my ribs were a bit sore and I had a small scrape on my knee, elbow and big toe, but that was nothing. Of the thousands of self portraits I’d taken since starting this project on June 11, 2008, this was the first and only TRULY authentic photo I’d ever taken. All the others, although reflective of my lived reality, had been consciously set up in one way or another.

I’ll always think of this as the best fall of my life.


Patricia’s essay on BURN:

Falling into Place

Website: Patricia Lay Dorsey


52 thoughts on “patricia lay-dorsey – the best fall of my life”

  1. Wow. This is an amazing photo. Glad you weren’t badly hurt. This should be the cover of your book.

  2. andrew sullivan

    This image scared me. It depicts raw emotion and experience. The text provides welcome relief. I’m thankful you’re okay. A remarkable picture from a remarkable person.

    Great to see you in Charlottesville, by the way.

  3. :) Congratulations Patricia for the Great Fall!

    One of those “once in a lifetime” shots…really marvellous the way the photo came out perfect in every sense. This is really Height of Mixed Luck -> bad fall = bad luck | perfect moment captured on self-timer = great luck…all at the same time!

    Fortune favours the brave.

    The best photos are never planned!



  4. I’m also glad you weren’t seriously injured. Since you’re doing a lot of self portraits I think it would be worthwhile for you to get an intervalometer for your camera. This would allow you to control the amount of time before your camera fires, so you wouldn’t be restricted to the usual 10 seconds. Lots of other things you’d be able to do, set it to take a picture of you every minute, hour, day, etc. I shoot Canon and use the TC-80N3 (for Nikon I think the equivalent is the MC-36, but you’ll want to make sure). Just a suggestion, thanks for sharing.

  5. Gordon Lafleur


    Glad things are falling into place for you.

    ‘can’t wait for the book.

    Gordon L.

  6. Nice one Patricia, reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Good to hear that you are o.k.


  7. That is where the Lay in Lay-Dorsey must come :-)))

    Looks like an angle we could see in an Ennio Morricone movie, the street looks uncanily like an Old western town Main street. Not quite resting in peace, but the camera just shot faster, Patricia, and by gosh, the candles were already for the wake!

    The good, the bad and the… Patty!


  8. you are
    the light on the bricks,
    is lovely..
    your head,
    just so…
    crossed arms…
    so glad you’re ok!!!
    what a

  9. Patricia,

    Even when speaking of such difficult circumstances, you tell a delightful, inspiring and optimistic story – and your photo illustrates it beautifully. I hope you are recovered and I look forward to seeing more of your project.


  10. Carrie Roseman

    What a fantastic shot, Patricia! It was so cute to see how excited you were after you realized that you captured this moment. I’m so glad that you got this photograph to include in your book. It was great hanging with you in Charlottesville, and I look forward to when our paths cross again…

  11. Wow. I just came back from working out at the gym to find my pic and story as today’s selected photo. Thanks, David and Anton. I am honored. And special thanks to all you wonderful Burnians. It sure is great to be able to share such a magnificent (?!!) moment with my friends! Cary, I’d never heard of such a device but will surely look into it. It would open up entire new vistas. Hell, I could even get myslf swimming laps. Cool!


  12. Gives new meaning to “f8 and be there” :)

    ..and I love that the best fall of your life was in the summer of ’09.

  13. I just now see something I’d missed. I really AM in mid-fall–my head hadn’t even hit the pavement yet. And did it ever hit HARD! But that’s the best part of being so hard-headed; I’ve never yet had a concussion. Lucky me!


  14. Wow, Patricia. I think this may be my favorite image on Burn so far! Great to see images with an element of humor. Thanks for smiling at yourself and allowing us to smile with you. :)


    when i saw this picture, my FIRST REACTION was about the PICTURE …

    much LATER, i asked if you were hurt!! laughing…callous dah?? .well, since you were in class and chipper as usual, i just assumed you had not been hurt…you even told me that as you were on the ground and in pain that your first thought was about the picture too…so , we are in this together…..i also remember thinking how amazing it was that you made this in the good light…

    i must remember to post the pictures of you dancing which was i think the very next day…

  16. Velibor Bozovic

    Is this from the Transformers? Bloody machines…
    I’m happy it all ended up well.

  17. As Louis Pasteur said, “Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.” (In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.).

    You most certainly stay prepared through your spirit and energy and enthusiasm, your overall approach to life…

    Very glad you weren’t seriously injured and that teh fates conspired to help with that shot, which you have so justifiably earned…

    It was great meeting, chatting, and dining with you in c’ville….


  18. patricia…

    time and time again you, your life and your work is a testament to that great chinese proverb

    “Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.”

    have always loved the shot, especially when i learned it wasnt constructed, and of course, your humor and humility and loving-kindness are the real exoskeleton by which your work and your life soars ambles and soars…

    lovely to hear you’ve got 2 of the best in david and gene helping you….good advice about the text….

    all the best

  19. DAH, yes please pretty please post your pic of Anton and me doin’ our hip-bouncin’ dancin’ thang! Such a kick! Anton is a doll and wonderfully silly too. Love him dearly.


  20. Patricia,
    the story of this picture is absolutely incredible! Glad you didn’t get hurt.
    Jim Powers is spot on with his comment to say it looks like the title page for your book. I think so too.

    Last weekend I photographed the Bethel Athletics, it is like some kind of olympic games for handicaped people. Look here: http://www.bethel-athletics.de
    To learn more about Bethel, click here: http://www.bethel.de/bethel_en/index.php
    By the way the pictures in the gallery were taken by a photographer who is handicaped or diabled (sorry I don’t know which word is politically correct). Hm, that reminds me to find out about this photographer a little more.
    The Bethel Athletics is a wild mix and it is all about beiing part of the game, trying to do as good as possible and to have fun. Everyone gets a medal at the end.
    What strikes me the most, again and again, is their positive spirit, their joy to live. I talked about this when looking at my images with a colleague of mine and I said: it looks like we are the handicaped ones. I cannot remember when I simled and laughed that much the last time?
    We have lots to learn.

    Patricia, with this picture of yours you risked something, you tried, you failed and yet you succeeded and you have the smile on your face. You are a winner!
    Thank you for sharing your time with the Burnians!
    Big hugs!

  21. What a powerful picture!!! No matter how much you arrange a picture, life brings unthinkable moments.



  22. Hmmm, Jim and Reimar…Now you’re making me rethink my original choice of a cover photo for the book. I’d used the photo of me looking in the mirror for the cover of my Blurb book and had liked the way it looked. But the truth is it had nothing to do with the title, Falling Into Place. Whereas this photo certainly illustrates the title pretty clearly.

    If anyone has more thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them. You can either post a comment on Buzz or email me at playdorsey@comcast.net

    Thanks for the suggestion, Jim and Reimar. I doubt I would have thought of it myself.

    Thanks to everyone for your comments. But where are the critiques??? How come I’m not feeling the heat even a little? After all, this IS still Burn, isn’t it?


  23. It indeed looks like Patricia is laughing, but I think on Pbase, she mentionned she was actually shrieking from the fall.

    Personally, I do not think this is the right cover for the book, Patricia. I was watching a french docu on Cartier-Bresson last night, and he mentionned to be careful about photos that may stay at the level of the anecdote.

    For people who know little about you (yet), and pick up the book, I am not sure they would see in it everything that you, and many of us, may find in it, ie. subliminally. Or may see too much, that is not your purpose

    For example, I think even if you were to laugh your heart out in the pix, people are bound to associate your fall with being wheelchair-bound yet “making the best out of a crippling condition”, which, correct me, is not the purpose of the book at all.

    For em, too intriguing or too easily seen as anecdotic. Within the discourse of the book, inside, it will fit in perfectly, however.


  24. i’d hate for that to of happened to my mother and it to of been there in black and white so to speak. but strangely how we see things in a different light, as You, are inspired by it. Which only a photographer could understand. out with the saying you cant teach an old dog new tricks. now thats inspiring.

  25. Oh, Patricia,

    Please don’t try again like that…. You’ve already taken very special self-potrait.
    Your passion always inspires me. ;))

  26. I don’t know, Herve. If I saw this image on the front of a photo book at the book store, it would stop me dead in my tracks. It’s that strong.

  27. Its a strong image.

    I’m glad you didn’t get seriously injured.

    What a way to get a photograph!

    Quite an amazing and inspiring story for any self portrait endeavor or for photography in general. Sometimes the best images happen without us doing much, everything just falls into its own place.

  28. though i simply love this image, but my vote goes for the original one chosen. that photograph definitely has an edge to it – i have no doubt about that.

  29. It’s that strong.

    I am not sure, myself, it is that strong without the story behind, and what it meant to Patricia (best fall of…).

    It may prove to be more intriguing, not so clear (some think she laughs, I think she screamed because she wrote so). The photographic stance is also on total chance (more than serendipity). All I mean is that the visuals, strong if you wish, of one cover picture should not matter more than the purpose underlying (no pun!) the entire book.

    Maybe have it for the cover and poster of “PATRICIA LAY-DORSEY at MOMA, A RETROSPECTIVE”… ;-)

  30. BOB – i love that quote and it is perfect for our dear Patricia.

    PATRICIA – first, i am glad you were not hurt. secondly, you nailed the photo. however, i am not sure it’s the right image for the book cover.

    please be careful with your scarves – you may not always have some strong men to lift you up again.

  31. Wow! This is a good teaching! Bad things (like falling in the middle of the street) often can be transformed in good things like the picture you got ;-)
    Congrats, also for your book-project!

  32. I so appreciate the feedback from ALL you Burnians. This is a great community.

    Regarding the discussion about whether or not I should use this photo for the cover of my book, your opinions have really helped me discern exactly what FEELING I want to portray in that very important image. When I look at the book I already have with the cover photo of me looking in the mirror, it seems to invite the reader to come inside and see the world through my eyes. When I replace it (via Blurb book’s software on my computer) with this photo of “the best fall of my life” it feels intriguing, yes, but also off-putting. It makes me want to avoid this obviously uncomfortable moment. Since I want to invite rather than put off potential readers/buyers, I think I’ll stick with my original choice.

    Maybe we could start a discussion about how one chooses photos for the cover of a book, or even for a published essay on Burn. What are you looking for in a cover image? What feeling do you want it to portray? How do you want readers/buyers to respond to it? Have you ever made a decision and regretted it later?


  33. When I’m a Books A Million in the photo section, and looking at a couple of hundred books on the shelf, it takes a pretty striking image to grab my attention, unless I go in looking for a specific book.

  34. Jim;

    “If I saw this image on the front of a photo book at the book store, it would stop me dead in my tracks. It’s that strong.”

    Totally agree, it would stop me in my tracks too.

  35. Patricia,
    It was wonderful meeting you for a few moments at Look3. You’re a glowing orb of positive energy, and your attitude/perspective with this image proves it. If you choose it for your book cover it would make sense, though it took me a few moments to absorb the impact of the image. But I suppose it’s a good thing if an image brings up questions instead of a straight answer, especially when you want folks to search beneath the surface.
    Hope to run into you again sometime!

  36. We are all different. The mirror picture would do to me exactly what Patricia wants it to do. Book covers when I see something, but no real identifier (narratively speaking) are left on the shelves. and it may be wonderful happenstance, but I do not think it’s such an eye-catching picture as a cover.

    If Patricia had been caught leaning back, as she lost her balance, that stronger sense of movement, and the suspension of it thru photographic capture, well, i may be alone, but I think it would make a better picture.

  37. If I was the editor of this book I will put this picture as the last one, maybe in what in italian is called the “contro-cover”, in the back of the book with some words of explanation of the work.

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