Sunday, February 15, 2009

Through the eyes of love

Years ago, when I was in my 20's, I read As We Are Now, May Sarton's magnificent story of life in a troubled nursing home, and not long after that I reviewed Jill Paton Walsh's Unleaving, an extraordinary story for young people, written about a home on the beach from the perspective of a young girl visiting her grandmother, and from the same woman being visited by her own granddaughter many years later.

Both books had a significant impact on me, and I thought for a while that I might want to work with the elderly some day. But life has a way of carrying us off into other places, and it wasn't until years later, on a photo assignment for the paper I had once edited, that I found myself photographing people who were being cared for in a church daycare center for elderly dementia patients. Charlie, the man pictured here, was from that photo assignment. The experience of photographing them and interacting with them was quite moving, so when I got a call a couple of weeks ago to do a presentation on photography for a local retirement center, I immediately said yes.

I designed a presentation that would show them lots of photographs of familiar places around the island, and then, at the tail end of the presentation, I showed them some of the fun things you can do with photoshop to make an ordinary picture extraordinary. I closed the presentation with a series of before and after portraits that had been photoshopped to make their subjects look younger, and then offered to take photos of each of the participants and bring them photoshopped copies.

I had a lovely time with the folks who came to the presentation -- they were all intelligent and engaged and engaging -- and I have been greatly enjoying my time this weekend working with their photographs. It feels to me like I am looking THROUGH these pictures to the person who lies behind them, in much the same way Walsh and Sarton saw through their elderly characters to the life and spirit that lay beneath. And though some of the work involves smoothing away the wrinkles and sharpening the jawlines -- the obvious things -- I am also restoring teeth, taking away the clouds from their eyes, and, for the women at least, restyling their hair a bit to frame their faces better.

I have learned, over the years, that when you love someone -- whether it's a friend or a mate -- over a long time, you barely register their aging process: you continue to see them as they were when you first knew them. Or perhaps it is just that who they are, these people that you love, eventually becomes an entity in itself, completely apart from their bodies. I like to think, in working with the photos I took at the retirement center, that I am looking with the eyes of love, and that what I see behind the rheumy eyes and age spots is the person within.

That's something I found it difficult to do with my own parents, although they did not live to the age of these folks, and I wonder if my own children will be able to do it with me.

I hope so.

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