Lasting Memories; A Portrait Photographer’s Gift

Being a photographer for 30 years has helped me to become more acutely aware of my surroundings. I find myself at all times watching how light pours over faces, how compositions just jump out at me, and how micro landscapes abound everywhere in daily life. So, it was with great surprise one day that I noticed just how blissfully unaware I was of my surroundings, and that maybe my visual sense was not quite as elevated as I had once suspected.

All Photos © 2007, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

My wife's mother lived with us for 17 years. The responsibility of caring for her became too much for us so she became a resident of a health care facility. Now 97 years old, she has been there for the past seven years. And while I had photographed her a few times in those years, it wasn't until recently that I became acutely aware of the need to photograph not only her, but elderly people who were also residents of the facility. Here's how my "epiphany" came about:

On one of my Sunday visits to my mother-in-law I came around a corner and there in the middle of the hall was her roommate, a very frail and tiny woman, slumped over in her wheelchair, resting on her veined hands. I was immediately struck by this powerful scene in front of me. It seemed to me this vignette of life before me was crying out to be captured. There was no beautiful light, just the cold reality of fluorescent bulbs. But in that moment I knew I had a mission to accomplish. I wanted to photograph as many of the residents as possible, to create an image of them at this time in their life, to give something to the family members that they could cherish when their mother or father was no longer with them. I had a job to do.

I contacted the social services director and told her I wanted to photograph as many residents as I could. I told her I'd like to attempt to capture an image that the family would enjoy and also try to create a more "telling," or "real," portrait of my subject if possible. I explained that the images we would be taking were an attempt to capture the personality of our subject and they would be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. We made no attempt to force a pose or expression. For the "happy" pictures, we talked and kidded them as we would any portrait subject. For the more meaningful portraits, we (my wife Lorraine and I) would either just talk to them or leave them to themselves for a few minutes to see what would unfold.

I obtained model releases first from the 25 or so families who complied. We told them we would be giving them a 5x7 of their mother or father. We also gave a CD with the images to the facility. The social services director told me they wanted to do something to put on their bulletin board, so I made a 20x30 composite print with all the images and names and put the name of the facility and my name on it. We only did very light retouching on a few images where it was a blemish or something out of the ordinary. No softening or basic retouching was done at all. When we delivered the poster and images, many staff members cried and hugged me. They come to know the residents very closely and really appreciated the portraits. It was quite gratifying.

I delivered the images and poster just before Mother's Day. On Mother's Day I went with my wife for dinner at the facility and many family members came and thanked me for the portraits; they were very touched.

I did not make one dime on this project, nor did I want to. We gave the files to the facility and told them they could do what they wanted to with them, including giving them to the families. There are some things you just are compelled to do, and that describes how this project is to me. The day before we started photographing, we met a man in the hallway. His mother had passed that morning and he came to tell me how sad he was that we wouldn't be able to take her portrait, he was really looking forward to having it. Now that we have done the photography, I can tell you that it is an unmet need.

The Photography
I instantly had a vision of how I wanted these images to look. I thought of the portraits of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon and decided I wanted a similar look and feel. Please note that I am in no way comparing myself to these giants but rather using them as my inspiration. I wanted the scene devoid of any distractions because nothing was as important as the subject. I gave no "clothing instructions," no hair and makeup tips, I wanted the portraits to be as close to "real life" as possible. Blankets, wheelchairs, and plaid afghans were all welcome.