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Sue Gerstin
Written by Kate Sipher
Photographed by Mark Gallucci

‘There’s no wouldas, there’s no couldas, there’s no shouldas,” Sue Gersten assures. If you’re giggling right now, you’re no doubt one of Gersten’s many friends, as she’s made this statement often enough that its become one of her mantras.

“I do everything,” she says, pausing after each word for emphasis. “I have to expose myself to life, I have to get out there.” Yet getting out there is an issue for the 62-year-old photographer, who has battled rheumatoid arthritis since she was in her 30s.

Due to the severity of her pain, Gersten conducted her third-grade class from a wheelchair for eight of the 25 years she spent teaching, but those days are behind her now. Gersten is no longer bound to a wheelchair (though she does use one on occasion). She also is no longer a teacher. As she puts it, “I gave myself this gift of retirement.” A gift that was unwrapped five years ago.

Since then, she’s devoted her time to photography—an art she clearly adores—and travel. “I’ve been taking photographs since I was 4 years old,” Gersten says, and she has always traveled. “During the eight years that I was in a wheelchair, the kids and I went to Europe every summer, to a different country—to explore.” She began to realize that these treks were providing her with the valuable experience of traveling with a disability, and in 1987 Gersten coauthored Traveling Like Everybody Else: A Practical Guide for Disabled Travelers (Adama Books). “I knew how to get to the airport, I knew what to bring, I knew what to ask for,” she remembers. Traveling Like Everybody Else offers advice for even the temporarily disabled: “You’ve bought your ticket, you’ve paid for your hotel and you’ve broken your leg,” she says. “Do you back off and lose your money, or some of it, or do you go anyway?”

In the book, the success of which earned Gersten a spot on Good Morning America, she suggests making a rehearsal trip to a not-so-far locale. “My first trial was to go to New York City on the train all by myself—my wheelchair and me—to see if I could survive, to see how limited I would really be.” Laughing, she adds, “My family worried the whole day and I survived.”

Gersten has traveled all over the globe. “The only continent I haven’t been to is Australia,” she claims, “but I’ll get there.” Her two trips to Cuba had her hauling up to 300 extra pounds of clothing, food, over-the-counter medicine and school supplies to donate to Cuban families. “I now have friends there,” she says, “so if there’s going to be a new baby, they tell me so I get those kinds of things.”

Her photographs of Cuba have been shown all over the Capital Region, at such places as the Albany Public Library and Hudson Valley Community College, and she lectures regularly about her time spent with the people there.

Gersten is most interested in the people who inhabit a place, and favors them as subjects for her images. Because of that, Gersten finds herself photographing many a wedding. “It’s like you’re a fly on the wall and they don’t even know you’re there,” she says. Family portraits are also a specialty, and she claims they’re more in demand following the events of Sept. 11. “More families want family shoots,” she says. “They want everybody, all the aunts, the uncles, the cousins in the same image.”

Gersten has won many awards for her photographs, and a visit to her Web site (www.suegersten.com) offers more images than you can shake a stick at. As a matter of fact, she’s always taking pictures. “You’ve got to understand, I wake up in the morning, I pick up my camera and I’m set,” she says excitedly. “It’s a joke around here, ‘She must sleep with her camera.’ ” And Gersten doesn’t necessarily have to make use of her passport to scratch her travel itch. “One day in Boston is traveling for me. My trip starts the minute I get to the airport.”

There are days, however, when Gersten is sidelined due to her health. On top of the arthritis pain that varies from day to day, she also deals with diabetes. “I have some tough diseases,” she states, “but it doesn’t mean that they control my life. I control my life. I make my decisions.”

“As I say to everybody,” she laughs, “from the neck up, I work just great.”

 


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