Aaron Wollin is a man of two personas. On stage he is the world’s shortest daredevil, known as Short E Dangerously, expert in whipping the crowd into an intoxicating frenzy. He balances on freewheeling bowling balls, throws knives, and walks on fiery glass with his hands. “The high you get on stage is visceral, it's primal,” Wollin says. “It's two masses of energy colliding into each other.”
But offstage, once he hangs up his cowboy hat, his true self is revealed. “You have to have an on and off button,” he says. “You have to be able to separate the two personalities otherwise you're in trouble.” Wollin, who had his legs amputated when he was two and a half due to a condition called sacral agenesis, has been in the entertainment business for 20 years, and for the past five has been part of the travelling Hellzapoppin’ Circus Sideshow Revue. “I’m living a rock and roll life most people can only dream of,” he says.
For photographer Brian Lehmann, it was the character of Shorty that first captivated him, but it was Wollin’s offstage personality that led Lehmann to follow him on and off for two years. “He is a visually fascinating guy,” Lehmann says. “But I wouldn’t have carried on shooting him if I didn’t enjoy his company.” Wollin gave him open access to his life and the pair became good friends. “He got the real me,” Wollin says. “I didn't hide anything.”
The result is a fiercely intimate portrait of a remarkable man. “I think it's important to show his regular life because that is the point of the story,” Lehmann says. “He is doing everything you or I do; vacuuming, skateboarding, hanging out with his dog.”
Wollin describes his teenage years as a “little tricky”, but says his parents didn’t raise him to feel sorry for himself. When his mother passed away 12 years ago, it became a pivotal moment in his understanding of himself. “That was a real wake-up call for me. I figured out what was important in life and I just let everything else go,” he says.
Lehmann believes there is a lot to learn from Wollin’s outlook. “Shorty is a great example of not sitting at home and feeling sorry for yourself and instead just pushing forward like everyone should.”
Though Wollin attracts a lot of female attention— one girl once gave him two-dozen roses after a show — there have been times when the reception has not been so pleasant. "I do get unwelcome attention. But those people are just ignorant or they assume something about me that is incorrect," says Wollin. People have approached him in public and tried to give him money or ask personal questions. “They assume that I'm not like them,” says Wollin. But, Lehmann says, these instances are few and far between. “It's hard to have an ugly situation when the guy has a big smile and looks so happy,” he says.
Wollin will be 40 in December and though an intensely active lifestyle has taken its toll on his joints and muscles, he shows no sign of slowing down. “I love what I do,” he says. "Bryce [owner of Hellzapoppin] and I joke that we will retire when we fall dead off the stage."