In January, Daymon Gardner drove to Pensacola, Florida, to shoot a robotic exoskeleton created by a team at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) robotics lab for Popular Mechanics magazine. The exoskeleton was made for Mark Daniel, a former welder who was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident when he was 18, to help him walk unassisted and compete in the Bionic Olympics.
I had an impression of Mark before we went in because we had a draft of the story. What I liked about it was that it was techy, but it was also personality driven. I was excited to meet him, and he was just a very nice guy. In his past he trained as a welder before he was paralyzed, and he’s competing with this lab in this robotic Olympics.
He’s their athlete, but he also does odd welding jobs around the research facility. He’s totally one of the team. The way he interacted with the researchers, they were just kind of goofing off like brothers, and he was happy to do whatever we wanted. I can’t think of anything that day that went poorly, like any kind of glitches or anything. It went really smooth.
Daymon and his assistant, Giancarlo D’Agostaro, spent an entire day in the research lab to get the shots they needed of the exoskeleton, plus a few personality shots of what it was like in the lab.
There’s a lead researcher that we photographed there, and the lab itself, some of the process. They wanted to show the research assistants in there working on circuit boards.
But Daymon is much more about the portraiture work, which was certainly the main aspect of the shoot. Watching Mark get into the suit — no simple task for anyone, mind you — made Daymon appreciate even more the work that all parties put into the technology. The fact that Mark is just standing there at the end makes for an incredible viewing experience.
We set up against a white background with Mark, and watching him get put into that exoskeleton — it takes like three or four guys to help him get in there. Then they put him in there, and he’s attached with like this sort of pulley system to make sure he’s ok. Once they get that machine working where he’s like upright by himself, they remove the pulley system, and so he was just standing there.
It’s pretty incredible.
The story, At the Bionic Olympics, Athletes and Engineers Make Miracles, was published online and in Popular Mechanics’ May/June 2020 print edition.
Check out more of Daymon’s work at daymongardner.com.
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