Memories

With the power of cinemagraphs, I believe that it's a very emotive and engaging tool with the power to shed light on some important, or even difficult situations in life.

I took on a personal project recently, out of curiosity at first, which then turned into something of a passion project, and I really wanted to bring it forward through the power of cinemagraphs. Perhaps even for the first time for this medium...

As we get older, our lives become much more of a rich tapestry of the best memories that we've had with friends and family, and those memories are the only true possessions that we carry forward with us into the future, giving us the foundations of who we are and the lives that we've lived.

My wife and I recently visited her great aunt and uncle. Something we seem to be doing more and more as we've grown closer to them, and since they never had any children, they also don't have any grandchildren, which I guess we seem to have become to them in a way.

Both our great aunt and uncle have lived really long and rich lives. Uncle Ernie is 91 years old, and Aunty Yuri is 89; they've been married for 65 years, both accomplished scientists having always had a keen interest in how things work in the world. They also travelled well, taking frequent trips to Europe in their younger years to explore the many European cities and they particularly enjoyed going hiking in the Alps. 

Together, they have lived a life full of great friendships, as well as relationships with extended family, but as the years go on their visits have declined more and more, along with their energy.

Over the past 10 years Aunty Yuri has developed dementia and has slowly started to lose her ability to retain short term memory, or even hold a thorough conversation - often repeating the same statement or question within a few minutes.

When I first met them around eight years ago, Aunty Yuri was still able to hold a conversation with me, and was able to tell me stories of her younger days, so I've seen firsthand how the dementia has slowly eaten away at her personality, which is truly heartbreaking. Having a conversation with Aunty Yuri now is quite sad at times, as it's almost like holding a conversation with a past version of herself.

"What sort of things do you like to do, Aunty Yuri?" 

"Oh, I like to go out a bit, and I do like to paint. I have a friend who comes over, and we often enjoy painting together".

Sadly, Aunty Yuri hasn't actually painted in about 20 years or so.

Having only met her about eight years ago, after the dementia had started its onset, I don't even know if she truly remembers me anymore, or merely politely pretends that she does, rather than wanting to look unsure. Perhaps she only knows me now by association with my wife, but wouldn't remember me if I were to visit on my own. Despite having been born in Japan, Aunty Yuri mostly grew up and lived in England, and she is ever the English lady when it comes to propriety and politeness.

Unfortunately this isn't my first encounter with dementia, as I've also lost both my own uncle and grandfather to Alzheimer's, and this first hand account of seeing the deterioration of someone's mental well-being has once again been difficult to observe.

For that reason, I wanted to use my skills with cinemagraphs to shed some light on the humble lives of this lovely couple, and perhaps keep something of their time together alive through my work.

The first cinemagraph, at the top of this post, is a shot that I captured of Aunty Yuri and Uncle Ernie in their home, as Uncle Ernie is looking through their wedding photos. Aunty Yuri is seated in her favourite seat in the front room, where they receive their guests.

In this shot, I wanted to show the contrast of Uncle Ernie going through the photos, and reliving the memories almost as if Aunty Yuri wasn't with him. She can remember the old days, but not hold a long conversation, so Uncle Ernie is often left with his own memories.

This shot was intended to be symbolic of dementia's effect on people's lives. Uncle Ernie is sitting in the light, still strong of mind, while the light barely touches Aunty Yuri and she's illuminated in an almost moonlight-type fashion, enjoying less of the light and the colour of life. Though both present, life is a completely different experience for Uncle Ernie and Aunty Yuri respectively.

As cinemagraphs, I wanted these images to also show Uncle Ernie as the one who's moving, breathing and looking at the album, while Aunty Yuri remains still, locked in - like the effect dementia can have on someone. The Clear distance between them on the sofa is also a sign of how even Uncle Ernie misses being able to hold conversations with his lovely wife, and realises the clear distance between him and his wife.

Uncle Ernie and Aunty Yuri have lived in this house since the 1970s, and bought it right off the plans, saw it get built and have lived here ever since.

Uncle Ernie is the keeper of the house. He still cares for Aunty Yuri and himself while he can, but is aware that there might come a day when they might need to consider a nursing home for either of them, or both. In the meantime, however, he arranges all their affairs, cooks and makes tea, and ensures Aunty Yuri gets dressed properly, gets to bed at a good time, and takes her medication.

Uncle Ernie used to be an avid photographer, and is keen to show me the remaining bits of his darkroom setup that he had built himself in years long gone by, and he even had a near-mint Silvestri large format film camera that he was eager to show me, but one that he'd not used in so long that parts of its functioning now eludes his memory. He had given up his serious pursuit of photography a few years ago already, along with his photographic club memberships, but still remains an avid reader of photography magazines, like the frequent issues by the Royal Photographic Society. But do not mistake his 91 years for technological ignorance! He also enjoys reading up on digital photography, and now and then pulls out his prosumer digital camera for birthday snaps or some shots of his beautifully kept garden. To top it all, he's in the process of acquiring a new computer to upgrade from his old one, with which he not only uses Google or email, but sometimes plays around with his photography software.

Aunty Yuri has always enjoyed the outdoors, though she's too frail to go for walks anymore, but besides enjoying the views of her garden, she's also a keen reader of Country Life.

Tea time happens regularly in their household, during the morning and the afternoon, and Uncle Ernie is always making the brew in the kitchen, like he does most other things around the house. He'd assumed most household activities after he found Aunty Yuri one morning in the kitchen, waiting for the electric kettle to boil on the gas stove. Funny as he might tell the story, he also realises the risks involved with his wife's dementia, and consequently does everything in the kitchen now.

Staying in the kitchen, Uncle Ernie also relies heavily on his trusty old weight scale, which was a wedding present 65 years ago and has served them well ever since. He weighs a lot of the obvious things one would expect to be weighed, but also weighs their food.

"I like to make sure that we're getting our portions in. So when I cook, I weigh everything, including our pea portions. Hmm." He'd say with a slight, but assertive, smile. Uncle Ernie is assured in his ways, and he has always had a habit of finishing his sentences with an assertive "hmmm", as if to acknowledge, if only to himself, that he's confident in what he's saying.

When it comes to entertainment, Uncle Ernie and Aunty Yuri don't have dinner parties anymore, but they do like to go out for dinner. A well-visited local haunt of theirs is a fantastic Italian restaurant, called Trattoria di Carlo (or Carlo's as they call it), which they frequent at least twice a week, and Uncle Ernie is usually very happy to have guests join them for dinner and a glass of Chianti wine. They've been going there for 8 years or so, so Aunty Yuri does remember the restaurant, and the owner Carlo, but not much more.

"What's your favourite meal on the menu, Aunty Yuri?"

"I like all sorts, really. I like a bit of fish, or prawns, or some pasta, but I don't really have a favourite". And with that, she leaves the meal choices to Uncle Ernie, who always orders the same starters for himself and Aunty Yuri, although he does choose something different every time they go.

Back home, they watch TV from time to time, and when Uncle Ernie sees me, he'd keenly ask if I'm keeping an eye on the rugby or cricket. They also enjoy a bit of classical music, and Uncle Ernie was happy to bring the old record player into action for our shoot, although he hadn't used it in a few years.

"All of the music we have on record, we also have on compact disk now", boasting a selection of CDs much larger than his record collection. "My speakers on the record player are still really good, and the record quality is very good as well, but it's just so much easier to play a compact disk".

Always wanting to keep Aunty Yuri in the conversation, we always try to include her with some questions, so as to not only be talking to Uncle Ernie.

"What's your favourite music, Aunty Yuri?"

"Oh, I suppose I quite like a bit of classical music."

"Who's your favourite composer, or what's your favourite piece of classical music?"

"Well, I like them all really. There's not one I like more or less than another, I like a mix of everything equally. I suppose, sometimes I might prefer to listen to once piece over another, but I don't have any particular favourite".

And with that, the music conversation is brought back to the raw realisation that Aunty Yuri, perhaps, doesn't really recall her favourite composer or most beloved symphony, but is caught in the uncertainty of what she might feel is the right answer, but not have the confidence in memory to support.

My take away from this visit, as it seems to be increasingly so with every visit to Uncle Ernie and Aunty Yuri, is to perhaps hold those you love close to you and cherish each and every beautiful moment.

For as Dr Seuss once said, "“Sometimes you will never know the value of something, until it becomes a memory.”