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(On Dementia)


“There are two main protagonists, a woman and a man, who might or might not be on vacation and who are very clearly enjoying each other’s company. In 14 of the photographs, they can be seen posing next to signs such as the one above, making fun of themselves in all kinds of ways. It is a very endearing set of photographs.”

So wrote Jörg M. Colberg in a recent post ‘Finding Vs. Found’. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the thrill of the hunt for old photographs, the dirt-under-the-fingernails of ‘the hopeful rummage’ but the surprising conclusion that:

At least as far as photographs are concerned, there also is the fact that while I do enjoy finding gems like the slides made by the couple, I actually enjoy such imagery much more when it was found by other people.”

I like old photos too, and particularly ‘vacation’ and ‘celebration’ snaps, showing people at their unguarded best reveling in some fleeting moment captured. You can look at them as ‘art’ – all shape, texture, line and balance, or peer beyond and wonder at their subject’s thoughts, what their response was to this place they are in, and were so impressed by that they were compelled to record their presence in it. Or more philosophically, what did they do in the moments before the shutter button was pressed or immediately afterwards?  Maybe even wonder how their contemplation of this photograph differs from mine, and if it changed with time, and why that was?

Old photos find their way to junk shops, flea markets, onto ebay, in all sorts of ways: disposed of after deaths, found in skips, or unearthed in the loft of a house just bought after an old couple have passed away. Maybe uncovered in dusty boxes in a garage, lying in the gutter after careless garbage removal on a windy day, in the glove box of an old car, down the back of an aged stained sofa or in countless other overlooked places.

My mother has dementia, and is now in care and becomes more confused as she grows older. I recently had time to go through a large box of family photographs I had found in a chest my mother had kept in her bedroom. When I cleared her apartment I had piled the chest’s contents into a large Canon printer box, which I took home and stored in my loft for a few years.

It is brim full of images, albums, ephemera from holidays and events, newspaper clippings of family doings, and more. To my surprise I found a bundle of letters, the complete set I’d sent home in the late 70’s as a teenager wandering alone through the USA for a year, my tiny writing crammed onto the limited space of the blue aerogrammes in a vain attempt to convey some sense of the unlimited space I was traveling through.

I thought I’d make an album of images for my mum, just a simple collection of photos of family and events, something nursing staff could use as a therapeutic tool, a focus for discussion and laughs with her, but also a barometer of memory, a measuring tool to establish gradual loss as her power of recollection fades.

It didn’t immediately strike me, but as I turned page after page in the large number of albums, something gradually became apparent. Empty spaces.  A page full of images, then an empty space (             ), another page full of smiles in some foreign place, mum, mum and my sister, then an empty space (           ), mum and my brother, mum, another empty space  (            ), me on a beach, mum, me and mum, empty space (           ). The ‘story’ of a family but with ‘words’ missing for some (           ) reason I could not fathom.

And then I realized, in one sudden jawdrop moment. My dad was gone.

Every single image that I assume he would have been in, was absent. Leaving only a blank space. The clear plastic leaf cover stuck firmly to the white adhesive album backing, like an underexposed negative whose loss you grieve for and whose details cannot be retrieved. I was utterly confused. That sit-on-the-floor-and-sigh-deeply sort of confusion. I scrabbled through the pile, more albums, more blanks. Piles of prints in envelopes, not yet mounted, and again, although stacked tight together, my hunch quickly confirmed that there were more empty spaces concealed within. My dad had died about fifteen years ago after forty years of apparently contented marriage, but there was no evidence here that he had ever existed.

My mother had fought gamely against dementia for many years, maintaining her voluntary job in the local charity shop until she was well into her 70’s – way beyond our expectations but supported in her relatively small community by the familiarity of place and acquaintance. I knew she’d brought stuff back from the charity shop, little purchases she fancied, or photo books she thought I might enjoy (but quite often the same book, the ubiquitous Michael Freeman’s how-to of photography). And after she’d been hospitalized and I cleared her house I found other objects and books she’d bought, concealed in corners, hidden behind other items on rarely visited shelves, but all tightly wrapped, layer upon layer of plastic, and tape, and more plastic, and more tape. (which I wrote about here: “Archaeology’).

For a few years after she entered her current care environment she had a habit of hiding money, notes and other ‘valuable’ ephemera in between the pages of books or newspapers, which would then be accidentally disposed of. When I moved her furniture into the care home, I decorated the walls of her room with family pictures. On my next visit they were gone, removed by her and wrapped in many layers of plastic and clothes and hidden in drawers, and for the next few years every attempt to reinstate them met the same fate.

I knew that ‘stuff’ from the charity shop came into her house regularly, but now I wonder did other items go out? Did my mother remove the images of my dad to keep them safe, then ‘lost’ them? Were these photographs slipped into books whilst she was working in the charity shop, or maybe put down and forgotten, or accidentally binned? Did she leave them on the bus by mistake, or are they ‘somewhere’ just waiting to be found. Or, even more difficult to comprehend, is their loss deliberate? I won’t ever know. Certainly there is one image where some of my dad remains, but only his chest, and that partially concealed behind a sofa at some family gathering. His head is absent, the cut marks on the image are evident enough though. More than any of the others this ‘image’ made me stop and ponder, and filled me with a deep welling sadness.

Some people wonder what the attraction is of photographs of other’s lives, why they matter so much to ‘collectors’ like Jörg, after all these are strangers looking at the unknowable lives of other strangers. But do we have to know these “protagonists” personally to recognize and share their ‘joy of the moment’? I think not. We are all human and can share joy, sadness and the wonder captured in an image.

One day someone might unearth a set of images of a small contented man, the same man appearing in a range of different places, growing older in each. And they might wonder. And if that is you, and you’re a curious ‘finder’, all you need to know is that these pictures, perhaps, weren’t thrown away because they’re not valuable. They may have been lost because they mattered. They had been carefully curated, removed from their album sets and accumulated deliberately, perhaps once or twice spread across a floor and pored over, maybe even wept over. But then lost, the memory of their presence and importance simply dissolving.

I’ll finish with another quote from Jörg Colberg:

“I’m not going to stop looking for photographs, including on Ebay. There just is too much good photography still to be found, online and in the real world. But with time I’ve become much more aware of the real promise of “found” photography, part of which lies in the finding, the true finding that is – not the simulated one online.”

Photo albums are a record of some moments in a life, pointers to experiences past, each one a punctuation mark in the passage of time. And in the albums I have inherited, even these blank spaces between images have significance, for they are a record in themselves of some stolen moments in the arc of my mother’s life, and the fading of her memory.

Although I long ago accepted dementia would rob my mother of her memories, I had not considered it would also, so subtly, so deftly, rob me of some of mine.

So if you find them, please enjoy them, they are precious.

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