Text and photos by Joanna Ornowska.
It was all in my head. I was feeling tired but I carried on. I started to notice ordinary things, in everyday life, things that I appreciate, I see beauty in things which are imperfect. And I slowly started to pay off my debt to people that I love. I think that there’s more serenity in everything that I do. It’s not that I don’t care or lost my ambitions, I just believe more. I’ve got two hands, two legs, I can breath, I can hear, I can see. It’s amazing.
This is the last paragraph from the text that I wrote for my personal project describing my year-long recovery from Hepatitis C. It was a difficult time. I was giving myself injections and taking pills throughout the following 48 weeks. When I started to feel weak, I was thinking that maybe it’s normal, maybe it’s caused by something else… Even though it was often hard to force myself to get out of bed, I was trying to live the normal life. But over a period of time it slowed me down. There were times when I wished I stopped the therapy. I was exhausted, my head, my muscles, my bones were sore. When I couldn’t get over it, I was going straight to bed and was waiting for the hours to pass. It was hard to wake up and hard to fall asleep. I had no energy that I used to have, any physical work was exhausting. Things I was able to do before without any effort, now started to become impossible, it was frustrating. I’ve lost almost 10 kilos, I was loosing hair, I felt a bit as if I was vanishing. I know that it was very hard for people around me to deal with it. I was trying not to show as much pain as I really felt. I did get used to it. But being happy was very hard sometimes…
At first I didn’t think of photographing anything at that time. I took a gap year at university, I needed a rest. But I also felt a strong need to give the answer to what was happening inside and around me. I convinced myself to pick up my camera again; in fact this was the moment when I really started to appreciate photography. And I photographed everything that surrounded me. I know now that it was an attempt to explain how the treatment overtook my life and lives of people that I love. I didn’t see it at the time, but those photographs hide something that allowed me to get to the end of the therapy, something that made me see things in a different way, something that helped me to wake up and see what really matters. People, family, close relationships, joy of being together, memories. My photographs are personal, but also anonymous and distant and I realized they can be part of history for each and any one of us. After that I became more curious about the role of photography in documenting and creating our identity. I was interested in how it influences our perception of world and memory. It inspired me to start another project. The camera is my passport to negotiate the meeting. Photography has become my language, unfettered by the grammar of the written word. Beauty has become the currency of my stories, through the simple and transparent sharing of a moment.
My current project is about memory and forgetting. I got in touch with people suffering from memory degenerative diseases. Their world is often filled with confusion. They gradually lose contact with themselves, their loved ones, and their personal and social location. Simple activities become difficult or impossible. They forget. People with Alzheimer’s are often stereotypically depicted as completely lost to us and themselves. The symptoms of degenerative brain diseases are real, but people who suffer from Alzheimer’s are not empty shells. Love and understanding is important to enable them to stay in the moment. Those stricken with dementia deserve more than just sorrow and confusion.
As I explore the subjects of memory and identity my photographs are the history of these meetings, their stories bear witness to an identity traced and recorded through the familiar detritus of our existence. Photographs from this project are glimpses into the life of a vulnerable person with a degenerative illness, and each glimpse is a moment lost in time. When words and thoughts fail, as in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the symbolic language of art can tell a story, express an emotion or recreate a memory that may otherwise be left untold. I believe that simplicity of my images allows for an expression of human intimacy without overt exhibitionism or exploitation. I just wish that people who see my work would trust their feelings and then the programmed and literary approach and response could disappear from photography and its interpretation.
We are sensitive to beauty. The beauty in art, beauty of nature, the beauty in another person. A man, engaging with its simplicity, eye gaze, friendly gesture, warm word – the beauty not so much external as internal: attracting with a good heart. The pleasing view of a child full of joy chasing a ball, touching image of the father leading his son by the hand, unforgettable eyes of elderly lady with kindness and gratitude looking at the person who came to visit…
I started to photograph Dorothy in February 2011. Her rich life and precious memories became my inspiration. Born in Pontefract, in 1933, she is the youngest of a large family. Some people called her Little Dolly Daydream, but she was a lot more sensitive and deep thinking than anyone gave her credit for. Her dad, who was a coal miner, died when she was a baby. When she was 5 the whole family moved to Birmingham, where she continued her education. Although she got the place at Art College, she chose to go with her best friend to Derbyshire in order to become a teacher. She met Don when she was 16 and married him in 1955 on New Year’s Eve. Together with their children, they were helping and supporting each other throughout many years. After the initial devastation of losing Don in 2008, she rebuilt her life as a widow. She lives now on her own in a small bungalow in Rugby. She is a most talented and capable woman, her mind is filled with knowledge and experience. Dorothy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. What will happen to that talent, to that mind? Where will be the memory of that life?
When asked about Alzheimer’s, Dorothy says that it’s like hanging a lead weight around your neck. People are kind, they don’t mean to be unkind, but they don’t realize how painful it is for the person with Alzheimer’s to have that label attached. Doctors talk to your carer, as if you’re an object or a child before talking period. That protective silence is painful and can send a lot of people deep into a shell. ‘I find it hard to visualize the future.’ – she says – ‘I hope it doesn’t get worse. But then that would come to stage when I wouldn’t realize that I’ve got something worth remembering anyway. I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t get any worse, it’s a horrible thought.’
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