My mother has advanced dementia and my father and I are looking to move her into a new care home, as the one she has been in is no longer up to the job of providing her with the support she needs. Whilst in conversation at one of the prospective homes a care home manager asked us if we had a photograph of my mother that they could put in her room to aid her memory. My father and I laughed and looked at each other with a knowing look. Do we have a photograph?
My father has albums after albums, boxes upon boxes of primarily colour prints documenting our family over the past six decades. “Photographs are what we do!” He said.
He was not talking about my job but his passion. Not for photography, he knows of no photographers, cameras or photographic history but for recording memories. After we left the meeting he began in the car to talk about ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as a form of memory collection and Italian frescoes. How he saw these were connected to photography and the photographs he had made over the years of my mother. I should say at this point that my father was bought up in a Catholic orphanage, received little if any formal education and left school aged fourteen. He has been a bricklayer all of his life and is not a traditional academic although you could describe him as an academic of life.
He has also never read any of my books or articles where I have discussed exactly what he was proposing. His understanding of photography is informed but untutored.
I was taken aback by his response and the question the care home manager asked. I assumed that most if not all people had a collection of photographs of their parents, but of course this is a naive assumption. We have few photographs of my father because he was always behind the camera. We have many photographs of my mother because we had a photographer in the family, someone who would never describe themselves as such.
I am in a similar position. I have many images of my wife and daughter but few of me. Those I do have are taken by others usually for work related reasons.
If the time were to come that I need the support of a care home in the future and my wife was asked if she had a photograph of me she would have few to choose from and certainly none printed and ready to frame. The photographer is rarely photographed and this photographer remains in the shadows.
When asked what photography means to me, the question I regularly ask of others, I answer history, personal and universal. History is memory and dementia strips us of both to the outside world. Despite this it is the photograph that remains. I think I will agree to be photographed more often, it may be useful in the future for others and for me.
Main image: Grant Scott by David Eustace
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2023