MARSHALL - Kaeley Rolland never really planned on being a professional photographer. And she certainly never planned on being thrown out of a car at 65 miles an hour. But fate sometimes has a way of aligning itself in ways one never imagined.
"It was a brush with death," 25-year-old Rolland said of her accident nearly five years ago. "It was scary and I've had to change everything. I used to travel a lot. Now I can't really do that."
Rolland, a senior at Southwest Minnesota State University, was raised in northern Minnesota, in the Thief River Falls and Perham communities. While vacationing at her dad's cabin on the Lake of the Woods, Rolland's life would forever be changed. And the date 7/7/07 would be seared into her memory.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
After a car crash in 2007, Southwest Minnesota State University student Kaeley Rolland started pursuing photography fulltime. She now operates her own small photography business (Rolland Photography) in addition to being employed as a photographer at SMSU.
"It was the Fourth of July weekend and there was a fishing derby on the lake, so we couldn't do anything that day," Rolland said. "My boyfriend (at the time) and I got bored and decided to go into Canada."
Since Winnipeg was closer to her hometown than the Twin Cities, Rolland had been there a number of times and was familiar with the area.
"We didn't need passports that year," she said. "We went in to Winnipeg and were dinking around. We went out to eat, went to a park and to a few other places."
The couple had a good time in Canada, but the day turned tragic on the way home.
"We were going home and my boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel," Rolland said. "We were 10 miles from home."
Rolland remembers saying a smart-alecky comment to her then-boyfriend about keeping the vehicle between the lines.
"I think I scared him out of his sleep and he jerked the wheel over to the left," she said. "He tried to correct that and we did fishtailing."
Then the vehicle, a Ford Ranger, began to tumble. Rolland recalls grabbing onto the door, not knowing what was going to happen.
"We had our seatbelts on, but I was still ejected," she said. "They think, with all the things that were thrown around, it got released."
The first thing Rolland remembered after the crash was some man talking to her.
"I kind of knew we had crashed," she said. "I didn't expect to wake up, honestly. I kind of expected it to be the end. We were in a Ford Ranger, which is a tippy vehicle anyway. They said we rolled, they guessed from five to eight times, but it was on the road, off the road, into the ditch and to the tree line. I was thrown out somewhere and found in the ditch."
Odd, random thoughts went through her mind, like thinking she was still in Canada and was talking to an American, a tourist, she thought, and being annoyed that paramedics were cutting off her brand new shirt. But amazingly, she was able to rattle off multiple phone numbers in order to reach her parents.
"I thought I was fine 'til the next morning when they did the CAT scan and the MRI and stuff," Rolland said. "That's when I found out how bad my injuries really were. And that's when the pain kicked in."
In a short amount of time, Rolland endured four surgeries and was kept on a morphine pump.
"I broke my back in four places," Rolland said. "I broke my femur in two places. I broke my tibia head right by my knee and tore all the tendons.
"Then, for two weeks, they didn't realize it, but my hand was broken, too. They had me doing physical therapy on my hand and you're pushing down on it. I had ruined it so much that they had to go in and do reconstructive surgery."
After the crash, Rolland was taken to a hospital in Roseau, to await another ambulance because there was an additional emergency call that night. Even then, Rolland kept a positive attitude and had a sense of humor.
"All I remember about that is that my brother, my cousin and my dad were there," she said. "My brother and my cousin were reading a 'Doctoring for Dummies' book in the emergency room. I looked at my dad with huge eyes and said you've got to be kidding.
"To this day, we joke about that. Why do you have a doctoring for dummies in the ER? Do you want people to run away or what?"
Rolland's boyfriend also survived the crash, but broke his lower leg. He eventually went home to North Carolina to recover and the couple broke up six months later.
"The break cut off the circulation to his foot," Rolland said. "He had to have seven surgeries on that leg before it was healed up. They saved his foot, though. We still talk once in awhile. He got '7/7/07' tattooed on his wrist. I might, too, but I don't like needles."
Rolland pointed out that while her boyfriend's injuries were more serious at the time, her injuries were more long-term. For a year and a half, Rolland suffered with benign positional vertigo (BPPV), which gave her the sensation of spinning. She also spent her days in a wheelchair.
"My injuries are not necessarily permanent, but long-term," she said. "It's been almost five years now, and I'm starting to walk, but it's very slow. Sitting for such a long time, weight gain becomes an extra obstacle to deal with."
A NEW DIRECTION
Rolland was eventually brought the hospital in Grand Forks, N.D., where she also did therapy at the rehab center just down the hallway. While there, Rolland turned her attention to photography.
"I read the manual when I was in the hospital because I had nothing better to do," Rolland said. "That's where I learned a lot about proper exposure and where different things are located."
Ironically, Rolland's camera was not damaged one bit in the crash.
"There was no scratches on it or anything and it was going around in the car, too," she said. "I said, 'how is that fair?' My lens weren't even cracked."
Little did Rolland know then, though, that photography would be her saving grace, and an answer to future employment.
"The whole car accident kind of changed my interests," Rolland said. "I did photography here and there, kind of like a hobby, but I probably wouldn't have tried to get better."
Finding herself in a wheelchair, Rolland had difficulty finding employment, so photography became more than just a hobby.
"I kind of started doing some work around campus, just for fun, and all of a sudden Jim Tate (SMSU director of communications and marketing) got ahold of me," she said. "I was kind of thrown to him after a couple of people saw my work."
After meeting Rolland and seeing her work, Tate hired her on the spot.
"She is a very talented shooter," Tate said. "We're just tickled to have her."
Rolland's speciality, he said, is getting a tight profile.
"We've found, with our expansion of social media, that those types of shots are popular with our students, especially our international students," Tate said. "The students love them. They'll tag them and send them all over the world."
In addition to being a student shooter, Tate said Rolland is also helping with a massive project.
"She's helping take all the negatives from the SMSU History Center and digitalizing them," Tate said. "It's a precursor to a 50th anniversary book. She's been a blessing."
Rolland's first paying photography job was about two years ago. Early on, she received a great deal of support from the international community on campus. "The Nepali students were my guinea pigs," she said. "With college kids, the word spreads pretty quickly. This week alone, I've had one gig per day. I did a picture for a band, Hick Town Mafia, the other day."
That work is in addition to Rolland's two SMSU photography jobs and her own business, Rolland Photography, which is in its early stages.
This past summer, she started taking photos of high school seniors in addition to capturing the moments that matter at weddings.
"I did four seniors last year," Rolland said. "I do a lot of seniors and weddings. They're both a lot of fun. I have a handful of weddings booked for this summer. Summers are the busiest."
The biggest challenge Rolland faces, besides getting her name out there, is directing from a wheelchair.
"I can't physically show them how to pose," Rolland said.
Thanks to technology, Rolland has been working on that.
"Through Skype, there's a way to mentor people," she said. "There's a mentor from Des Moines (Iowa) that teaches how to direct someone from a wheelchair."
Rolland currently has a Facebook page for her professional business, and she's working on building a website in the near future. Although the editing process can get a little old after awhile, Rolland is passionate about what she does. She'll graduate from SMSU with a degree in psychology at the end of the spring semester, though she'll likely be taking photos of the graduation ceremony rather than taking part in it.
"People always say if you find a job that doesn't feel like work, stick with it," Rolland said. "I can do this every day of my life and be fine with it."