"Show a positive image of the elderly and those who care for them in their everyday lives through photography."
When the director of the retirement home in St. Jean de Losne in Burgundy France suggested this idea to me I almost couldn’t wait to get started.
It’s a tricky subject because it forces us to confront a reality that we’d rather not look at or even think about: that inevitable stage of our lives when time catches up with us; when we begin to lose our bearings; when our social ties shrink and our dependence on others grows. In a world where the pace of life is always increasing and where we are constantly subjected to a profit margin mentality which dictates and measures our personal worth, productivity is the goal and youth and beauty is the norm. Speed is what matters. The image of the elderly, being the opposite of that, projects us into a parallel universe where time slows down as if to further strengthen its hold on us invalidating our existence.
Is it possible to put a positive spin on this world where time crawls by gradually restricting every movement, and leaving the mark of the passing years etched deeply in every face? At first, being there felt like a kind of suspended animation where nothing happens and where there is no way out. However, as I observed life here, the beauty of old age became obvious in the sparkle of an eye, a compassionate gesture between two residents or the joyful sound of their voices at choir practice. Day by day, living with these older people stripped of any artifice, their authenticity moved me and they went straight to my heart. It was not “the elderly” whom I photographed at all. It was Michel Loriod, Mrs. Lay, Maria, Rene Camus, Angel Revy, Jeanne Konig and all the other individuals.
But besides living in the same establishment, what did they all have in common? The ages, degrees of dependence, and physical and mental health varied greatly from one person to the next. Despite the toll the years had taken, some were in relatively good physical shape, whereas others required a wheelchair to get around. Still others were unable to speak, or confined in a body made rigid by illness and arthritis. And some residents could no longer express themselves having completely lost touch with reality. How does one have a meaningful exchange without the power of speech or control of one’s gestures? I found that the essential is communicated by feelings. By a smile, a reluctant tear, a wink or a profound look. Much more than with words, it is with their hearts that they speak. That’s what I learned being around these beautiful people and that’s the image I cherish of them: rather than “old age” their age is “of the Heart".
The staff understands this very well and often stimulates communication by evoking an emotional response with a joke, a display of kindness, or a gesture of tenderness.
These people are our parents and our grandparents; they are who we came from and who we will become. Spend a little while with them. Look closely at them and offer them a moment of your time. They have so much to give. They have the “Age of the Heart". Open yours to them.
Maria doesn’t speak anymore. At times, her lips tremble and she utters sounds, but nothing that resembles comprehensible language.
Sometimes, as if in profound thought, she’ll walk by taking no notice of anyone. Where does she spend those trancelike moments she’s unable to share with those around her? What is she thinking about?
On the other hand, there are times she’ll stare intently at someone, smile broadly and go to give them a kiss. The staff has nicknamed her “Mémé Bisous” – “Mrs. Kisses".
There are many ways to communicate in this world. For instance, birds have chosen to sing – a beautiful choice. Maria has chosen to kiss.
When you think about it, isn’t that a beautiful and essential communication?
I think there is a lot to learn from someone like Maria in our sometimes awkward attempts to connect to each other.
Mrs. Trullard is blind.
Where then does her desire to paint pictures come from given that she’ll never see her creations?
With closed eyes, she lets Sophie guide her hand, and perhaps it’s the warmth of Sophie’s touch that encourages her to delve into an activity normally reserved for those who can see. But that can’t be her only motivation. She has the inner strength and resolve not to let her handicap confine her to an oppressive isolated world, so she takes part in group activities. Mrs. Trullard is an admirable woman.
Sophie has a knack for capturing the resident’s interest for a given project, sometimes reading from a book of fairy tales, going around the table captivating everyone like Mrs. Roblin who points at “The Miller In Love”.
Then, continuing her storytelling, she comes to Mrs. Trullard whose face lights up as she listens. And then something totally unexpected happens. Transported by her imagination, she suddenly opens her eyes as if picturing the scene being described.
For a few moments Sophie has taken Mrs. Trullard out of her prison of darkness into a magical world.
With an absent look in his eyes, a gaunt face and a body twisted from the way he leans on his walker, Mr. Comorassamy seemed destroyed by some internal torment. I had seen him walking the halls like a shadow and dared not take his picture. Was he aware of what he looked like?
I tried to speak to him, but his voice was weak and his pronunciation was muffled. A conversation wasn’t possible because I couldn’t understand anything he said.
Luckily his friend Mr. Furney came along and helped us get to know each other. I started taking a few shots of him when he covered his face with his hand. I put my camera down thinking he didn’t want to be photographed. But a staff member who’d been watching us encouraged me to carry on. “He’s playing with you!”, she said. So I began again and realized that he wasn’t trying to hide from me, he was playing peek-a-boo! His mournful countenance, usually so haggard, transformed into a lively mischievous expression. He was radiant behind his long awkward fingers and the metamorphosis was striking.
After I took a few more pictures, I showed him his image on the camera’s digital screen and he was clearly moved. He uttered a few almost inaudible words and then stared at me and smiled. His smile lasted only a few seconds but to me it felt much longer. The next day I passed him in the hall and he recognized me. His caregiver lent him her phone and he immediately began playing with me again. In our silent conversation the day before, something significant had definitely taken place between us.
But what did we exchange? I can’t articulate exactly what transpired between us, but I will never forget the way he smiled at me that first day. It is one of my most precious memories of the time I spent in this retirement home.