Photography tuition is enabling Gill to live well with dementia

A Picture Tells a Thousand Words

Gill has a diagnosis of young-onset frontotemporal dementia. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia), frontotemporal dementia affects the front of the brain and most commonly affects speech, coordination, visual perception, and behaviour.

Gill struggled to access activities for people with dementia due to her age – she was told she was too young to qualify for the help! Thankfully she was put in touch with Bright Shadow, which is open to all ages of people living with a dementia. Through Bright Shadow, Gill has been paired with Jen Holland, a professional photographer, to receive creative photography tuition.

Jen chatted to Gill about what the photography means to her.

J: What are the main benefits of these sessions been for you?

G: I think it has added value to my everyday and given me another avenue of what I can do with my time, that I enjoy…that actually makes my life better. It’s being recognised that you can still do things despite having a dementia diagnosis. 

You feel like people with dementia get ‘written off’ after diagnosis?

Yes, set adrift and people get an opinion of you that you can’t do these things, when actually, yes you can – if somebody gives you the opportunity to learn or to advise and support you in doing these things. Somebody you can ask questions of and who helps you to look at things in a different way. It’s just about adapting things to individuals and things that they find difficult, like for me a difficulty in seeing things close up, and my tremor. But still, you can get the enjoyment out of being able to produce something, that other people can take pleasure in too. You get a bit of a buzz.

That feeds into your aspirations of putting together an exhibition of your photos doesn’t it?

Yes, it’s that challenging perceptions of what people see in me [as a person with dementia], people don’t see the real person, they only see labels don’t they? I think there’s so much more to a person if people take the time.

You were already into photography weren’t you before these sessions?

Well I started in lockdown taking pictures on my phone when I was walking the dogs. Then I would send them via WhatsApp to people who perhaps don’t live near the countryside or are stuck indoors in the towns. It’s almost like a window into nature which everybody should have a little piece of some way, somehow. People were looking forward to seeing my pictures, and they said I should do something with them! Which is why I would like to create an exhibition.

Because you’ve certainly got the skills latent in you, I’d say. You’ve got an eye for photography!

Yes well people just want to give you [people with dementia] some colouring don’t they? Or switch the TV on…and it’s totally wrong!

Why is it important for you to be working with a professional then?

Somebody just showing you, like a friend, is nice, but at the same time by having somebody who actually knows what they’re doing adds value to it. So actually it makes the whole experience more valuable. AND the fact that somebody with professional experience is giving that time to help someone like me. Definitely value, because it’s about purpose.

And has it inspired you to take photos outside of our sessions?

I’m seeing more and thinking differently. I’m using my different lenses.

Gill’s images of a statue of Winston Churchill, as part of a creative challenge to photograph the same subject 9 different ways.

Anything that stands out in your mind that you’ve learnt in these sessions?

The buttons on the camera…I’ve been able to think “oh that’s what that’s for”. It’s made a difference then when I’m actually taking a picture. I’ve used the tripod, which had never come out of it’s box before. I can see different ways of really benefitting from using that. Just being able to look at things closer, and that’s what I wanted. To get more out the pictures, and have a bit more direction, and get a better picture. Anyone can take a picture if they can press a button, but it’s thinking that little bit more about what you want the picture to be. A lot of my pictures have been flukes! But when I go back and look at them now I can see why [they’re] quite effective.

And they’re memories, they’re capturing memories – I know dementia isn’t all about memory – but moments. I think moments become precious.

And it’s creating positive memories, even if it were someone with dementia whose struggling with short term memory, the emotional memory is still quite strong. So to have positive moments, in nature, is invaluable.

Yes, and you know even if your eyes don’t work, if you have built up those memories, like a visual of that picture, It can make you feel more calm and at peace with your surroundings. 

Do you have any other aspirations for your photography?

Yes, I have a DSLR camera so I can attach it to my telescope and take pictures of the moon. So I know I can learn to do that now. And of course the exhibition I want to host, in time for my birthday!