A photographer cherishes ‘all the little things’ after mother’s death

Audrey waits for the movers on her first day in assisted living at the Plaza at Park Square, Aventura, Fla., on May 27, 2020. (Lori Grinker)

“I wasn’t close to my mother,” said photographer and filmmaker Lori Grinker. “She never told me she loved me, and our relationship was strained by my parent’s divorce and my brother’s death from AIDS in 1996. And yet, during the last year of her life, we found an intimacy we’d never had before.”

During that last year, Grinker photographed her mother’s fight against dementia and a terminal cancer diagnosis. It started in March 2020, as the U.S. shut down because of the spread of the coronavirus. “I went to Florida to help her move into an assisted-living facility, a plan suddenly derailed by covid,” she said. “Instead, for the next three months, I became her housemate, her cook, and her caregiver.”

That’s when Grinker started photographing her mother’s life and, she said, her pain. All of the little things that became part of Audrey’s last few months on Earth. The food she ate, the pills she swallowed, the waiting rooms she inhabited.

These photographs, which document the breakdown of a person, both in mind and body, have received the Bob and Diane Fund award, which encourages visual storytellers to produce stories about Alzheimer’s disease or dementia to raise awareness about these diseases. Organized by Gina Martin, the fund is named after her parents, who faced similar battles against Alzheimer’s. Previous winners include Jalal Shamsazaran, Stephen DiRado, Carole St. Onge and Maja Daniels among many others. “As a daughter of Alzheimer’s, I very much connected to Lori’s photo essay of her mother’s journey,” Martin said. “Lori captures the loss of her mother in a quiet, respectful and dignified way.”

“The judges talked about how picture essays sometimes suffer when told chronologically — but not Lori’s story about her mother,” said photographer Chip Somodevilla, one of this year’s judges. “Lori marked the march of time, and the toll of her mother’s illness, with such skillful photography that the flow felt natural.”

“From telling details to poignant moments, we follow the journey of this proud woman losing her sense of self,” added Sarah Leen, another judge and a former director of photography at National Geographic. “Lori takes us along this journey of a mother and a daughter with an empathetic eye that asks us to consider our own relationships and mortality.”

Faced with her mother’s disease, Grinker said that what was keeping them apart didn’t matter anymore. “In frailty and weakness and loss, one can discover there is something more important,” she added. “I hope these images will help others recognize the importance of all the little things and the memories connected to them. And how the smallest gesture of help is invaluable.”

With the $5,000 from the award, she plans to produce a book and an exhibition. “My mother agreed that I could share her story,” she said. “I will do that so that it might become a little easier for someone else to navigate their own journey.”