Documenting Dementia – An Interview with photographer Christopher Nunn

Written by Active Minds on Monday the 5th of August 2013.

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Christopher Nunn is a young photographer based in the North of England.

One of his most recent project’s entitled Falling into the Day documents fellow artist David Blackburn’s everyday life living with dementia.

Beautifully contemplative yet charged with emotion, Chris’ series of photographs, taken over 4 years, lead us into an intimate space that it is very rarely our privilege to be part of.

Chris, you are quite a lot younger than David, how do you know one another, and how did the project come about?

-Whose idea was it?

Well, we met randomly when I worked in a DIY store. He started talking to me and we just stayed in touch. I found him interesting and I was interested in his work, so art was very much the common ground. David was always happy for me to photograph him. For quite a while I was interested in making a project about him, purely because his character and his daily routines fascinated me. The project started coming together when I began to realise that David had the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Had you had any experience with/ of dementia before? Did you know what to expect?

Over the years I knew David I saw Alzheimer’s effect several people. Firstly a neighbor developed Alzheimer’s, and went from a strong, lively gentleman to a frail, child-like figure in a short space of time. He was eventually moved to a care home and passed away a few years ago.

Around 5 years ago my grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She was of Polish/Ukrainian descent and came to England after the war. She had quite a tough childhood. She was funny, kind, eccentric and totally formidable, and Alzheimer’s slowly destroyed her character and quality of life. My family looked after her for several years, which was a huge strain. She passed away a few months ago.

Did David want you to document anything in particular?

It took a while for David to realise that I did not want posed, smiley portraits. Eventually he became comfortable with me being around and just let me do what I wanted. I’m not sure he ever really understood what I was doing, but he trusted me enough to do what I wanted.

How did the experience and your relationship change over the four years?

I think David gradually began to forget who I was, or at least partially. I think he still somehow remembers me, but I don’t think he really knows who I am or how he knows me. He can’t remember my name unless prompted.

In general though the relationship stayed very much the same; I would visit him, go for walks, have lunch and sometimes I would take photos. It has become increasingly difficult to photograph him though, because some of the connection has been lost. It has been very difficult to justify photographing him in the condition he is in.

Was there an event or a moment over the four years that particularly stuck with you?

There have been many very sad moments over the years. I think the day I began to notice that he really wasn’t well will always stick with me. There was one particular day when he phoned me several times in a row in the space of a short time to have exactly the same conversation. If I couldn’t answer he would leave confused voice mail messages. This began happening every day and gradually got worse.

What has the response been like to your photographs of David and what is your hope for the photographs/ project now?

The response has been very positive. People seem to see the sensitivity in the work and relate it to their own experiences with Alzheimer’s. The photographs have been published quite widely on various photography websites and blogs, but most importantly the work seems to resonate with people who have dealt with dementia, who are not necessarily connected to the photography or art world. I’ve had several emails from people around the world who have understood the work and noticed things in it that speaks to them about someone from their own life who have been affected by Alzheimer’s.

I think like most photographers, I would like to make a book with this work, but only if the time is right to do so and there is enough interest in it. I’m currently starting work on a book dummy with the images together with pages from a collection of his diaries. They are not journals, just regular page-a-day annual diaries, but they contain his life in an increasingly chaotic web of notes, names and numbers referencing almost everyone he has known from the 60’s up until 2011. They give a fascinating insight into how his mind worked, and they show quite clearly a deterioration of his handwriting and the increasing signs of mental illness. Interestingly, they also contain notes about Alzheimer’s as early as 2009, proving he knew about his condition. As well as this there are also many notes about our meetings such as dates, times and locations that I myself have forgotten. 

 

Thank you to very much to Christopher, and David.

You can view Chris’ series of photographs at http://www.christophernunn.co.uk/fallingintotheday/