Help-Portrait 2014 - Thoughts, and a Portrait of an Old Friend

As a portrait photographer, I've really started to pay attention to the folks whose images I've made. I know that sounds weird. You'd think, "Duh, Rogers, you're a photographer. You pay attention." It's obvious. But what I mean by that, is that over the years, I've come to really value the experience of making someone's portrait. particularly when it's a loved one, or a family member. It also has made me acutely aware of my interactions with folks when they're in front of the lens. (More on that in a minute)

We hosted our third annual Help-Portrait event with the YWCA here in Birmingham, AL this year. I've blogged about it before, but each year is a new event, with new faces, and some old friends from the year or two before.  It was great to see folks whose portraits we made last year, and exchange hugs, smiles, and laughs.  

We had news coverage this year, which was pretty cool. ABC 33/40 has filmed all three years, but we actually made it to the 6:00 news this year. AL.com also ran a brief piece on the event, which was really nice. When it rains it pours I suppose.

If I had to distill the whole event down to two pictures that were my favorite to make, it would be these two.

The first was a woman who came up to my station in a foot brace. We exchanged names, and I asked if she'd be more comfortable sitting. She said that standing was fine with her. Then I noticed a large scar that ran from her ear down her neck to her chest. She said that she had a stroke recently, and was recovering. We talked for a bit, and I asked if she would prefer that I favor one side over the other. (One thing I learned from Joe McNally. Be honest with your subjects, Tell them exactly what you're photographing.) She genuinely appreciated how candidly I spoke about it, and offered her left side to the camera. However, that was about as static as things got. Once we started talking and shooting, her personality absolutely blossomed. She gave me some of the most genuine smiles and laughs that I photographed all day. She was loving every minute of it. Unfortunately, she was very short on time, and couldn't stay around to receive her prints. That made me sad, because of all the folks I handed prints to on Saturday, her eyes were the ones I wanted to see when she held her pictures. Thankfully a friend who stayed longer was able to take her prints to give to her.

The other image was, for me, much more personal, so, I'll get back to the first of the post and talk about being mindful of the folks I want to make images of. When I was 13, my grandmother had a stroke in her apartment, alone. We estimated that it was a day or so before a neighbor reported that she wasn't coming to the door, and Nanna was taken to the hospital. This is the grandmother that my daughter is named for, who I loved dearly. I loved all of my grandparents, but Nanna and I always had a bond that my mom swears was because, as the mother of two boys herself (my dad and my uncle), her only male grandchild held a special spot in her heart. There's a picture somewhere of the two of us in my treehouse. I guess she figured any good grand mom would surely climb up a ladder into a treehouse with her grandson. I mean why not?

Anyway, strokes being what they are, and timing being critical to treatment, she didn't do so well, and recovery was a long road. At some point (I don't remember this, so I'll take mom's word for it.) after being in and out of a rehabilitation facility, my folks were struggling with how best to care for her. 

Being the shrewd negotiator I was at the age of 13, I guess I decided that I should say, in front of Nanna, mom, dad, and the rest of the family, that we should vote on if Nanna lived at our house. (They train you in the ways of the guilt trip early here in the South. At least I was democratic about it.)

As I don't really remember this, I can only assume what followed was some uncomfortable silence, a few, "uh, sure" statements, my parents being cordial to everyone, and after I went to bed, a big-gulp of bourbon for my dad and a glass of wine for mom. Oh well. I was 13. Live and learn.

Anyway, that was that, and a little while later, our front room was converted into Nanna's room, with a hospital bed, stroke chair, and all of her belongings.

We weren't prepared to handle all of the various medical goings on that caring for a stoke victim entailed, so we had some amazing RN's who provided round the clock medical care for Nanna. Delores was one of them. (Or as my dad lovingly refers to her, the drill sergeant. She was great at insisting on Nanna's physical therapy.)

Delores was a nurse who became part of our family for three years. I don't remember exactly how she came to be employed in the role, but she was perfect. She and mom became fast friends. She was the kick in the butt that a 13-15 year old me needed from time to time. Most importantly, she cared about Nanna as much as she cared for Nanna. Her heart and soul were in it. To this day she still regularly goes and sees one of Nanna's good friends who is in her 90's and be-bopping along, living alone, cooking, knitting, living it up, as you do.

Anyway, fast forward to now, and her granddaughter goes to the same college that I went to and sings in one of the choirs. Mom told me that Delores was planning on coming down for the Lessons and Carols service to hear her granddaughter sing, and it just so happened it was the same weekend as Help-Portrait. Now, I would have insisted on taking a portrait of her regardless of the time or place, but that it coincided with Help-Portrait was quite fortuitous. (Particularly since the basement isn't quiiiiiiiite finished yet. That's another post, though.) She was a huge help at Help-Portrait too. Dad's nickname for her is well earned, because she don't take no $#*% from nobody. She whipped a couple of little kids into line who were hollering at their parents about Lord only knows what. It's done out of love though, and with a mother's firm but compassionate tone. (And slightly terrifying. If you're 5 years old.)

Anyway, that's a too long story, but I'm super happy that I got to add Delores' portrait to my personal collection. It's a shot that absolutely means the world to me.