I wanted to do a collage of her life that showed some of the major events in her life from when she was a little girl to being in the army. My mother was an extremely strong—physically strong—woman and also, I would have to say, a very strong-willed woman. The loss of memory is very much about losing who you are. It's traumatic for the person losing their memory and it's very traumatic for the people watching their loved one go through the stages of memory loss.
Did the fact your mother has dementia help you photograph the people for this assignment??
Yes, I think if you have a family member with dementia you really understand how memory loss manifests in a person. That helped me when I photographed individuals with memory problems, like the people living at assisted living facilities. Sometimes it's not immediately apparent that people are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. There are different stages people go through in these diseases; being aware of that and being able to recognize certain trademarks of memory loss allowed me to have an empathy that I may not have otherwise had.
How difficult was it photographing EP, the man with severe memory problems?
Actually even with EP, at first, you couldn't tell from talking to him that he had any memory problems but as you spent more time with him he would start to repeat things and ask the same questions. He was aware of me, but he didn't really understand who I was and what I was doing there.
Do you have a favorite photograph from the assignment?
One of my favorites is of Dr. Fernando Nottebohm who is head of the Laboratory of Animal Behavior at Rockefeller University. He was just so wonderful. He let me have two days with him, which is a lot for someone so busy, because he really got the concept of the picture. His staff was great too, they helped me build a big cage for him to stand in with the birds.
You put Dr. Nottebohm in a big birdcage?
Yes, I wanted to show the canaries flying around him, to illustrate the ephemeral quality of memories, and we needed to find a way to put him in a room with birds. However, if you put the birds in a room that's too big, they might not be in the frame. They could also hurt themselves. So we needed to build something that was smaller than a room but also something you couldn't see in the picture. The frame was made of two by fours with wire mesh over them. The front of the cage is a clear glass door that I shot through. I couldn't photograph in the cage either because it could hurt the birds. The most important thing was not to hurt the birds.
So that image took a lot of effort. Were the brain slices as much of a challenge?
Actually, they were very difficult to find. There are facilities everywhere that have brains but it was hard to find one that could cut them into thin slices. I searched across the nation for a facility that would cut cross sections for me. Finally, I landed at UCLA. This was a rare opportunity and the people at UCLA were great to not only slice the brains for me, but to allow me the time to photograph them. I spent an entire day with those brain slices. I had to build a little set because I was trying different lighting techniques. I wanted to give the brain slices some sense of life or emotion.
Why did you decide to take this visual approach?
I was trying to make pictures that would give you the feeling of memory, that would trigger memories in the reader and at the same time would create a sort of backdrop against which the story could be set. With the portraits, I tried to show the power of memory. The portraits are of various people who have either problems with memory or are people for which memory has really played a tremendous role in their lives in terms of how they have lived their lives. I tried to make images that would resonate, images that would invoke the reader's own memories.