After his dad, Gene, entered a nursing home in 2004, Stephen DiRado spent the next six years visiting Wednesday evenings, Friday mornings and Sunday afternoons as Alzheimer’s slowly spirited away Gene’s personality and past. He used his camera to cope, holding on to his dad with black-and-white film.
“From Day One, it was a way of connecting with him to see if there was something wrong,” said DiRado, whose project documenting his dad’s illness and its effect on his family goes back to 1980, when Gene was becoming distant and distracted. The result is decades of photographs — more than 3,000 taken with an 8-by-10 view camera — forming an intimate portrait of a disease that affects close to 6 million people in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The images have been awarded a $5,000 grant from the Bob and Diane Fund, an organization that promotes awareness of Alzheimer’s disease through visual storytelling. The fund was started by Gina Martin, whose mother, Diane, lost a five-year battle against Alzheimer’s in 2011. The grant was judged by National Geographic’s director of photography Sarah Leen, NPR’s director of visual journalism Keith Jenkins, and Getty Images photographer Chip Somodevilla.
“The grant was set up to support photographers to tell the story of Alzheimer’s, and to bring a more visual awareness to the disease, to the persons and to the families and caregivers,” Martin said. “Larger awareness will only bring more understanding and compassion and, hopefully, more funding for research to find a cure.”
The grant gives DiRado the opportunity to publish the work in book form, with the goal of reaching as wide an audience as possible. Already, the work has resonated with families and friends of Alzheimer’s sufferers.
“Over the years, I’ve shared these images with 300 or 400 people on Facebook who sought me out to talk about what they are going through,” he said.
The collaboration with his father was also a way for DiRado to deal with his own fears.
“There’s always the possibility that I’m next,” he said. “I look like him, my fingers are like his hands, just 30 years older. When you see me reflected in a window, hugging him, I’m telling you the viewer, that this is a joint existence. I’m of his blood. I could easily be next. I’m 61 now. I forget names, I forget places and I get very worried about that.”
But DiRado doesn’t want people to be frightened by his work.
“One hundred years from now, I want this to be a book that tells you what Alzheimer’s was like,” he said.
He has even added a more hopeful ending — one that goes beyond Gene’s death in December 2009. “This last spring, my mother decided to return and live in the house where we grew up, so I’m making her part of this project,” he said.
For DiRado, it’s about bringing closure to his dad’s tale as he documents his mother’s widowhood.
“Life goes on,” he said.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
More on In Sight: