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Picturing community

Grenfell photography students take portraits of long-term care residents

Student Life

By Melanie Callahan

Editor’s note: The events in this story took place prior to the pandemic shutdown.

Prof. Marc Losier says that a unique relationship between a photographer and a subject is critical to a photograph’s authenticity.

He says this is particularly true when the subject is part of a vulnerable community.

Students of Prof. Losier’s Visual Arts 2410: Photography course had the opportunity to learn that first-hand when they participated in a project titled Picturing Community.

The project involved liaising with with Patricia Barrett, long-term care recreation development specialist with Western Health, to establish a photography project profiling long-term care residents.

“The goal of the assignment is to introduce photography students to environmental portraiture with 35 mm film, to get them to photograph slowly and thoughtfully, and to try and use the assignment as a way of fostering empathy for your subjects,” said Prof. Losier.

“I hoped that by assigning them to the long-term care residents they would get out of their comfort zone and hopefully propel them toward more ambitious work, as there is more at stake in photographing at the hospital.”

He says he had high hopes for the project, but the results went beyond his expectations.

A portrait of one of the participating residents.
Photo: Gabrielle Matthews

The students developed strong bonds with the residents, going back to photograph them several times on their own time and gifting prints to their subjects so they could display them in their rooms.

“Western Health staff were really happy with the results of the project and I know that the residents really loved having the students there,” Prof. Losier said. “It was a chance for them to connect with a younger generation. I also think they got a kick out of the fact that they were shooting film – something they all had a familiarity with.”

Ms. Barrett says the project was an opportunity to showcase the residents in their environment while promoting a positive message around healthy aging.

Eileen, one of the residents who participated in the project.
Photo: Shannyn Reid

“Friendships were made and fabulous photographs created,” she said.

“The residents and families were eager to see the finished products displayed, but unfortunately it was delayed due to the pandemic. They had such a wonderful experience many of them continue to reflect and talk about it.”

Student Shannyn Reid says she was nervous about the project at first.

“My first concern was how I was supposed to treat someone in this situation,” she said. “But Eileen, the resident I was partnered with, and I got very close. The more I visited, the more brave I became in asking her to do things for the picture. I think she enjoyed that, too.”

Ms. Reid says her favourite shoot was the day Eileen’s friend Olive from down the hall visited.

“She would be so happy and they would carry on like best friends do.”

When the project ended, Ms. Reid continued to visit Eileen, even bringing her gifts, including her portrait in a frame.

Prof. Losier was working with the Grenfell Art Gallery to exhibit the students’ work in a public exhibit, but plans were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Potential locations for an exhibit that allow for public health protocols to be followed are currently being sought.

“Given the tragedy of the pandemic’s effect on long-term care facilities, the students’ photographs are a beautiful reminder of the lives of individuals living in those circumstances,” he said.

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