Sometimes the realization comes almost too late — you sense that your loved ones may soon be gone, and it dawns on you that you don’t have any recent photos of your aging parents to remember them by . . .
When I snapped this photograph of my father, it was to show him how my new flip phone was also a camera. This was an exciting, new technology “way back” in 2005, before smartphones were the norm. I didn’t know then how much this photo would mean to me. It was the last one I was able to take of him — four days before he died unexpectedly. I will cherish it always!
Please grab the opportunities presented during your visits and holidays to take photos (and/or video) of your aging loved ones. Another cell phone tip is to activate the “Voice Memo” button and record them telling family stories. I suggest you do that surreptitiously so they don’t become self-conscious because they know you’re recording them. “It’s never too late. Even if your relatives are frail or suffering from dementia or in the hospital or a nursing home, there are still ways to capture the essence of who they were and, beneath the lines and curving spines, still are.”
An article in The New York Times (where the above quotes are from) offers excellent advice from photographers who specialize in shooting photos of senior citizens at their best.
1. Help your loved one get dressed for the occasion. Even if they’re in a hospital gown, you can cover them with a shawl or favorite sweater to add a personal touch. Women will likely be happier if you apply a little lipstick and brush their hair.
2. Shoot in a cozy room of their home (or yours) where they will feel at ease, or at least sitting in a comfortable position. If they’re in the hospital, try to catch them when the hospital staff is changing the bed linens; they often move patients to a nearby chair. Laying down is not an optimal position for anyone!
3. Create a relaxed atmosphere. Play some of their favorite music. Have family or friends converse with them. Hand them something to prompt their memories — special objects may prompt reminiscing, even with dementia patients. Ask simple questions that play to their strengths, such as, “What was your favorite game as a child?”
4. Don’t use the flash. The bright light is annoying, and the harsh light makes everybody look worse. Try to position your subjects in natural light near a window or take them outdoors if possible. As photographer, you should position yourself with your back to the light source, and have your subjects facing it. And don’t be afraid to use the zoom on your camera!
5. Be sensitive to what’s in the background. If they’re in a hospital or skilled nursing facility, the machines and tubes surrounding their bed can be eliminated by zooming in on the person’s face (see #4 above).
6. Take lots and lots of shots — especially now that we live in a digital world! The Times article suggests a photo shoot shouldn’t last longer than 10 minutes, unless your loved one is busy chatting with people and forgets that you’re there. If so, keep going. Candids are often the best.
It Goes Beyond Photography Though
The most important tip is the one at the end of the article:
Use these photo sessions as a chance to connect. When you ask questions about your loved ones’ past, you’re not just getting them to look lively. You’re opening up an opportunity to discover things you may have never known.
For those whose relationship with a parent may have been awkward or troubled, examining the parent through a camera lens — instead of through the eyes of a vulnerable child — can provide the distance that, paradoxically, can bring you closer.
And remember, you don’t have to be a professional photographer to snap a meaningful photo. Even though the photo of my father isn’t the sharpest, nor does it have the prettiest background, it will always be beautiful to me.
Don’t miss your chance to take treasured photos of your care recipients and/or loved ones!