Maja Daniels on documenting individuals with Altzheimer’s in a French medical center

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This World Alzheimer’s Day, Maja Daniels reflects on her behalf desire to capture a realistic and tender depiction of aging and memory loss

A good elderly man stands straight in front of a blue door, clad in a brown examined shirt and grey smooth cap. Captured from at the rear of, his hands are nicely tucked behind him, clasping a blanket or towel of some sort. He gazes into a porthole, searching for the particular secrets it might reveal as if it is a portal to another planet.  

The image in question [above] is not definitive: it deliberately elicits a lot more questions than answers. Portion of a study on ageing and the institutions that cater for seniors, it is a response to a difficult question: how can photography depict Alzheimer’s disease in a multifaceted plus realistic way? T he image is usually part of In to Oblivion (2007-2010), a three year project by Swedish photographer Maja Daniels that documents the every day lives of Alzheimer’s sufferers in a French hospital.

Within 2007, Daniels was contacted by a director of a geriatric hospital who wanted photographers and artists to make operate his institution. Describing that initial call as “weird and wonderful”, Daniels frequented the facility a year later. For ethical purposes, the girl declined to give its formal title. “I don’t really want this series to be about a specific hospital. It’s much more of the broader commentary, ” Daniels explains. “This is [about] a treatment policy that’s implicated all through Europe and it’s an attitude that is implemented through the entire Western world, so I could have done it in any hospital. It just so happened this place opened up to me in a manner that was just remarkable. ”

© Maja Daniels.

It had been during her first tour of that hospital that Daniels noticed a set of doors walled off from the rest of the building. A couple were standing behind them, waving at her through portholes. Staff explained that it was the protective unit for sufferers suffering with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, therefore the door was locked to prevent them from getting lost or directly into trouble.

“[Immediately] I just thought, yeah, that’s it, ” Daniels says. “It was very clear in my experience from that moment that was a significant and representational image, and that I wanted to do business with that as a way of informing a story. ” Daniels stayed in the hospital for five days to a week each month, becoming familiar with every aspect of the institution, assisting staff members with routine jobs like waking up residents or serving them breakfast.

Capturing her subjects, however , was far from simple. Daniels spent hours with Alzheimer’s patients, striving to represent their plight within a dignified way, but the girl was also struck by the fact that many were not fully cognisant of her presence. There have been legal challenges as well.   Clearing authorisations with the hospital and family members took almost two years.

“Even when you are trying to be very philosophical, or just trying to make a point, you’ll still deal with real people with family members, ” Daniels says. “They have sons and children, nephews and nieces and granddaughters, and they are much loved. Plus, of course , I had to spend a lot of time getting to know their families.  

“It’s [also] not a given to photograph someone who might give their consent at the moment, but who might not remember you in two mins, ” Daniels adds. “So that was something that I battled with. And the only method I could overcome that was to get consent. ”

© Maja Daniels.

Using a Bronica 6×6 camera “with a very noisy wind-on motor”, Daniels had been heavily influenced by Paul Graham’s work Beyond Patient , which captured British dole offices in the mid-80s. Just as Graham eschewed the then popular trend of colourless portraiture, Daniels resisted “stark and dark” depictions that were used to record geriatric institutions in the past.

The particular loud clunky motor to the camera itself was also helpful, with residents responding to it in dynamic and amazing ways. One man who also had a keen fascination with photography would say “there’s the Kodak” whenever this individual heard the motor whirring.  

“I didn’t need it to be discreet, I wanted the alternative of that, ” Daniels states. “The camera was simply so noisy, and large. It had that kind of sound every time I required a picture which caused a stir, which was good, since that’s what was needed. ”

Throughout the three years, Daniels also became something of a carer herself, transporting patients exactly who had become preoccupied with the door back to the acquainted confines of their wards. For the similar reason it was important that the camera “be with” the patients on their side of the door. Rather than framing their lived experience as one of entrapment, Daniels’ images reject that simple trope, instead focusing on living spent within this specialised device.

“It became a way to warrant my presence, the fact that I used to be trying to help in some way, simply being a voluntary person who had been there, ” Daniels says. “There wasn’t even long lasting staff in that unit. So that they were left to by themselves a lot of the time. ”

Within 2016, the series had been awarded the Bob plus Diane Fund , a $5, 000 grant for visual storytelling about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “It’s very hard to record Alzheimer’s disease, ” mentioned charity founder Gina Martin. “I think people will find [Maja’s] function to be very smart, refreshing and modern. ”

© Maja Daniels.

© Maja Daniels.

“Our societies are so highly ruled by a youth essential. But if you are old plus you’ve lived your life, so you no longer serve any manufacturing line, you are more easily disposable. And that is, for me, a horrible method of considering human life”

© Maja Daniels.

Eventually, Daniels does not see the pictures as a critique of private hospitals or carers, but an examination of “our institutionalised way of living which protects us through seeing certain things”. This is a project that has only obtained greater relevance due to shifting demographics. With an expanding people of elderly people across Europe, caused by falling birth prices and longer life expectancy, more elderly patients need access to specialised care than ever before. Using these rates only set to increase, the potential strain that will instill on public health solutions is a challenge policy makers are usually struggling to overcome.  

As Maja points out, the policies in question – which commonly involve shutting the elderly off from society in treatment homes and palliative wards – also reflect broader attitudes to aging and dying. In fact , they say a great deal about how society ranks people according to their output, instead of their humanity.  

“Our societies are so strongly ruled by a youth imperative. It is related to production value. Should you be useful in some way you have more importance, ” Daniels states. “But if you are old and you’ve lived your life, so you no longer serve any production line, you are more easily throw away. And that is, for me, a horrible method of considering human life. ”

Will Moffitt

Will Moffitt is publisher of The LEAF Review, a journal dedicated to European structures, and a freelance journalist. He or she studied Theology and Beliefs at Edinburgh University, then an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, College of London. His function has been published in The Telegraph, Wired and The New Critique.

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