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Taking a risk: Nathaniel Brinkley

Fayette photographer dreams of handicap-accessible portrait studio
Sunday, November 6, 2011 | 4:38 p.m. CST; updated 2:49 p.m. CST, Monday, November 7, 2011
Nate Brinkley poses with his portfolio and camera equipment in his home in Fayette on Wednesday evening, Sept. 28, 2011. Brinkley worked as a portrait photographer in California before moving to Missouri, and he hopes to open a handicap-accessible portrait studio in the Columbia area with the aid of a micro-loan. Brinkley set up the studio in his living room for the shoot.

Nathaniel Brinkley smiles, leans back in his wheelchair and stares upward when he talks about getting back into the business. His gold ring with “DAD” inscribed across it flashes in the light as he rubs his hands together and recalls what lured him into the 20-year career he spent as a studio and sports photographer in California.

“When I was about 15, I stole one of my dad’s cameras.” He lets out a bashful laugh. “That’s when my love for photography started.”

But when Brinkley, 55, talks about how that love was taken from him, his eyes and his hands drop, his voice flattens and his excitement vanishes.

On a rainy day in the fall of 2003, Brinkley was on the roof of his home in San Bernardino, Calif., laying tarp to cover areas that had been damaged by drifting embers of a forest fire. He was placing sandbags to hold down the tarp, he says, when a sudden gust of wind swept across the roof. The tarp lifted, opening up like a parachute and sending him tumbling from atop his first story home.

“When I hit the ground, I knew that was it,” he says. “I knew I was going to have problems.”

He underwent surgery to fuse two disks in his back, spent two years in physical therapy, and wasn’t able to work. His two youngest children moved to Fayette, northwest of Columbia, to live with his oldest son.

By early 2006, his mobility and strength had returned, and he was ready to begin working again. His kids were enjoying life in Missouri, so he joined them in Fayette.

And that’s how, in fall 2006, Brinkley found himself sitting in the top row of a small set of bleachers in Marceline, watching his youngest son, a freshman, play his first football game for Fayette High School. About two minutes before halftime, he says, the bleachers rolled backward, tipping over and dropping him and six others on their backs.

More surgeries followed. Rods were inserted in his back and neck, and screws and a plate from a previous surgery had to be removed because they were damaged. More physical therapy. More misery.

Hopes of returning to work were dashed when Brinkley started losing his balance. He began using a wheelchair and ended up in a Section 8 apartment, with a pile of medical bills and only Social Security disability checks to live on.

“I was mad at the world,” he says.

When he heard about the center’s business start-up program, it was the first glimmer of hope he’d had in years, he says.

Through the class, he developed a plan to open a sports portrait photography business. Since much of sports photography is taken on location, he hopes he can run the business from his home. He plans on beginning to recruit local athletic teams and schools next summer. 

If he makes enough money through sports photography, he wants to open a photo studio that’s entirely handicapped-accessible. Last year, when he went with his youngest son to have his senior pictures taken, he couldn’t get into several studios, he says. “Disabled people need photos, too.”

If he gets studio space, he'll begin advertising himself to facilities that care for people with disabilities.

He’s optimistic but knows it will be a challenge. He'll eventually need to raise enough money to rent space and possibly hire an employee or two. And although he has plenty of photo equipment, he needs a few upgrades.

“The technology has changed. It’s a lot more digital.” He laughs. “I don’t like digital.” 

He’s got some work to do, but he’s lost the sadness, he says. He’s lost the anger. There is a future now. 

“I know God has a plan for me,” he says. “I know he didn’t bring me this far just to let me slide back to nothing.”

He leans forward in his chair and gazes downward. His eyes are intense. “He has a plan for me.”

Next page | Paul Wooderson, mid-Missouri entrepreneur, aims for new website catering to unemployed

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