Can you tell a life story with just one picture?
Photographer and Scenario Host Jessica McDermott discusses her legacy project Recollection, where she attempts to tell the life stories of people with dementia in a single image.
I have been obsessed by symbols in pictures since I was at secondary school. Paintings like The Ambassadors and The Arnolfini Portrait - where objects laid out on a table or animals slyly perched somewhere in the frame give away the subject’s past, hopes and secret desires - had me completely hooked. I decided that somehow I wanted to make work as a sort of Renaissance Photographer for the present day, by telling the life stories of older people in portraits surrounded by an array of coded objects.
After I put out feelers to different organisations looking for older people to work with, my details were passed on to Westminster Arts (now Resonate Arts), and I was asked if I wanted to become a creative befriender. This meant visiting people, who have dementia, in their own homes and making artwork with them. I didn’t know how difficult that might make my project, but I thought it sounded like an amazing program, so I decided to just go for it. From there, I went to events, received training with Age UK, and just over six months later, I met Gina.
This portrait is the result of six months of conversation and 95 years of living. Let me take you on a journey through it.
Gina is in her living room, holding her favourite flower - a lily. She has made friends with the concierge in her building, who regularly brings her fresh flowers whenever they over order for the front desk.
Beside Gina sits a cushion, which marks the outline of Poland and Warsaw, the city where she was born. Embroidered around the circle that marks her birth city is a symbol for twins. Gina fled Poland during the Second World War, but the rest of her family remained and were killed, including her older twin sisters. She speaks fondly and acutely of her parents and sisters, who she has not seen for over seventy years.
Gina used to embroider a lot. She embroidered the seat of the dining chair that she is sitting on and matching seats for the rest of the set. It took her three years. She would do it whenever she got a chance. She liked it best on trains, as it was a conversation piece to share with strangers.
Behind Gina, to her right, sits a photograph of her late husband and napkins, like the ones he would produce in his paper company. Having met in Poland, they married in England and stayed. Along the window sill sit babushka dolls like the ones Gina played with as a girl; there are four together in a row marking her as the head of four living generations: she has three children, six grandchildren and eleven great-grand children.
Upon the table lie thirteen cards, a bridge hand - Gina has played the game for many years. There is a also a key with a room number. Gina co-owned an executive hotel in London with some friends, but they later sold it on. The number 1919 is the year of her birth.
Every week I would arrive at Gina’s flat and she would laugh at the calendar which said I was coming over to discuss art. One of us would make the tea and we would drink it with biscuits. Sometimes we made things together or pressed flowers, but mostly we just talked. She told me how much she liked looking at young attractive faces and always complimented me on my dimples. Some of our conversations were the same and some were different. Among an array of other topics, I would broach the idea of taking her portrait, to which she would often say - “You can take it twenty years ago”.
Gina began to remember me, but she would forget what we had spoken about, which made working towards the portrait a little tricky. The day came though and I arrived with a suitcase filled with a bulky light, my camera and the props, including the cushion that I had embroidered the outline of Poland onto.
It was difficult knowing what details to include in the portrait. With the symbols, I tried to find double meanings so that it felt like they really deserved their place in her picture - like the key, which served both as an indicator of the year she was born and that she used to co-own a hotel. And it was also tough knowing which experiences to share: there’s the big picture and then there are the little details. Another woman had helped Gina to make a journal of her life before I met her - that included some dates and had some pictures in it, and there were also the stories Gina told me.
I knew she had fled Poland during the Second World War and that she had never seen her family again. I realised that they must have been killed, but she never really discussed that with me. Instead, she told me anecdotes about her childhood - as with many people who have dementia, she seemed closer to, and found it easier to recall, her early memories over what had come later. And so what I really wanted to show was her character at the time when I took her picture. The coded objects hint at her life so far - but centre stage is Gina: a positive and incredibly funny woman, who is so much fun to be around. She wasn’t a fan of hearing she looked good ‘for her age’, but she really did in that picture, almost as if I had taken it twenty years earlier. She put it up in her living room and would point it out to people and she always seemed to remember that it was me who took it.
Gina died in 2018, at the age of 98.