Mark Seymour shares his moving images of his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s
Dad had always played the harmonica, and when he was handed it we could still see glimpses of him, even when he was fading in other respects
My images of my dad, Ronnie, were taken over the last five years of his life, following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The series [Living with Alzheimer’s: A Harmonica for Ronnie, which was exhibited at Andipa gallery in London] covers Dad at home, his treatment at the local hospital, and being cared for in a care home, right up until he passed away in March 2015. It celebrates his life as much as it recognises the pain and heartache of his illness.
I’ve always taken pictures of my parents and my family are used to seeing me with a camera, but Iupped it when we saw what was happening. I didn’t set out to even show them to anyone, but I think the exhibition happened because of the power of the images. They provide a real glimpse into how someone deals with dementia and how the family cope. They differ from charity adverts that feature an actor or model to try to raise awareness.
From an emotional point of view, I found the photographs quite easy to take. I visited Dad regularly, and it gave me something to do while sitting there for hours. When I got home and started looking through the images and converting them into black and white, that’s when the tears came.
I was shooting three times a week sometimes, and although my final selection only included 20 images, I’ve got hundreds of others. Some of the images that I didn’t choose were either too personal, or I felt that they were so evocative they wouldn’t all work together as one panel. Music therapy When I shot A Harmonica for Ronnie [main shot, opposite] I had no idea it would become such a key image, but as Dad’s illness progressed it became a natural focus. It’s a lovely portrait, and Dad had always played the harmonica. When he was handed it we could still see glimpses of him, even when he was fading in other respects. I also learnt that music therapy can help to rekindle lost memories for people with dementia.
I’m a Nikon UK ambassador, and mainly use the D4, but in the hospital I used a Nikon 1 V1, as I wasn’t allowed to take a big D-SLR in with me. I was often shooting in very low light, so a lot of the photos had to be taken at high ISOs, but thankfully the D4 copes really well with this. I rarely use flash anyway, but it wouldn’t have worked here.
I use wide-angle primes – 28mm and 35mm – to enable me to get close-up, personal images that tell a story naturally and candidly. Getting in the right position is key for documentary photography – my feet are my zoom. On the street, photographers can get nervous about being so close, but with Mum and Dad it was totally natural to be sitting alongside them.
Black-and-white imagery is my preferred style, which suited this subject perfectly. There are lots of big, bright elements and backgrounds in a hospital environment, and monochrome naturally avoids these unwanted distractions. I processed the images using Silver Efex Pro.
The exhibition was a great success and it was wonderful to have the support of the Alzheimer’s Society. I’ve had such incredible feedback, and I’m hoping to create a travelling version of the exhibition with a book. I think the images are so powerful because they weren’t shot with a goal in mind, but simply shot from the heart. See the whole series at www. markseymourphotography.co.uk and learn about Mark’s street photography and training at www.shootthestreet.co.uk