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BU alumna uses photography to help heal after bombings

The 2013 Boston Marathon began as a day for celebration and accomplishment but is remembered in the eyes of many as a day of shock, grief and sadness. One year later, Ryan McMahon said the Boston Marathon bombings served as the catalyst that led her to rethink the course of her life.

A Longmeadow native who graduated from the Arts Administration program at Boston University’s Metropolitan College in 2011, 34-year-old McMahon had been sitting on the bleachers with two friends when she witnessed the first explosion. While trying to get down from the bleachers and leave the area, the second explosion went off, throwing her friends and her to the ground.

“We knew something was wrong, and we had to get out of there,” she said. “Once I figured out I could get up, and all my friends were up, we started running up Exeter Street. I knew at that point I had broken my arms. My back hurt, but I was hoping there wasn’t an issue.”

McMahon had been attending the Boston Marathon for years with friends and family, often by Temple Street and Heartbreak Hill. When she worked as an official staff photographer for the mayor’s office from August 2005 to July 2009, she shot photographs from the finish line of the marathon. Last year, McMahon had the day off from work and decided to attend the marathon with a few friends.

McMahon was one of the first victims to arrive at Boston Medical Center, where she stayed until her release almost a week later. She said the time she spent in the hospital opened her eyes to the extent of the day’s damage.

“[At first], we were trying to take cover somewhere,” she said. “I got ahold of my mom and she told us we needed to go to the hospital. It seemed like we got there before the others. They put me in the emergency room, and then people started coming in, and I realized how bad it was. At the scene we saw smoke, but we hadn’t seen all the people who had been injured.”

Told by doctors that her recovery would take six to 12 months, McMahon moved in with her grandmother to begin the process of recovery. During that time, she focused her attention on documenting her healing through video diaries.

“With a back brace and two broken wrists, it was hard to do most things on my own,” she said. “The support was really amazing, and that’s why I started documenting things using my tripod, my camera and my computer in my room to do video diary entries. I wanted to capture my grandma taking care of me and observe the healing process of my body to help me deal with the physical and emotional trauma.”

Three months after the marathon, McMahon was capable of living on her own again. Now, more than a year since the tragic event, McMahon is almost completely physically recovered, excluding physical therapy for her right wrist after complications.

“I left my grandmother’s around July and moved back to my apartment,” she said. “I’m still doing physical therapy for my right wrist, but physical therapy for my back ended around December. I’ve been doing pilates and trying to strengthen my core.”

McMahon said the recovery process gave her time to think about her life and consider her next steps. Ultimately, she decided to go back to school to further her photography education at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where she is a student now.

At a Friday art show called AWESOMEBLAHJ at the Piano Craft Guild, McMahon displayed several of her photos, a project completed through the School of the MFA.

Robin Melendez, 34, of Natick, said she is a friend of McMahon’s who helped her recover and she was touched by the chance to experience her friend’s recovery through her artwork.

“I was in her life when she was injured,” she said. “I was concerned for her safety and visited her in the hospital. She has a good perspective on recovering and the healing process and has shown resilience. It’s a good documentation of the ability to cope with such a traumatic event. It did help her greatly and will help her continue with her art.

Michelle Casale, 24, of Malden, attended the gallery and said McMahon’s artwork is a projection of her experiences at the marathon and her recovery process in the months since that day.

“Her art is personal and intense,” she said. “It’s a bit confrontational because it’s so personal. You get a view of how she’s moving on. We [still] have to give her some time and space to think about what happened to her. It’s something that she has to deal with for the rest of her life.”

McMahon said photography has played a key role in her emotional healing, and she is lucky to have had the support of family and friends through the process.

“It’s been mostly art-making at the moment and, of course, spending time with family [that has gotten me through],” she said. “Shooting calms me down. I’ve been shooting about what recovery means.”

While she did not attend the marathon this year, McMahon said hopes to attend the Boston Marathon again in future years, and she hopes to run it eventually.

“I’ve been going back and forth about it, but I decided not to go,” she said. “Now I just want to be with my family. I think we’re going to go to the beach. I’ve done a lot this week participating, and I feel like I might need private time to be with my family and reflect on everything that’s happened this year.”

Mina Corpuz contributed to the reporting of this article.

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