On Exploitation; A Personal Essay

I have chosen not to include any photos or hyperlinks in this post because I see it as a softening of the words in the story, and maybe, a way to justify my intentions regarding photos I have taken during the end of my mother’s life.

I began taking pictures of my aging parents sporadically about four to five years ago before my mother became walker-dependent.  Over the last three years, my mother’s health took a slow unyielding turn south, as a stroke exacerbated the level of gray matter on her brain, thus creating dementia. Her thinning bones began to fracture from falls not more than two feet from the floor; her paper-thin skin would tear from Band-Aids ironically used to seal cuts and colorful purple-yellowish bruises from elbows hitting doorways and ankles striking the bedside safety rail have now become the everyday.  I was perplexed by this aging process; I didn’t understand how one who had been as athletic and vigorous as my mother could succumb to such gradual weakness and helplessness.  

At the beginning of the project, I also photographed my father, whose drop foot is supported by a leg brace.  Although he is no stranger to falls, his bones are denser than hers.  There was a spill on the white tiled kitchen floor that pulled the flesh away from his forearm like a potato peeler, the bleeding made worse by his daily aspirin regimens.  Another fall on the same floor broke a tooth after it punctured its way through his lower lip. The beginning of my photography project seemed innocent enough - isn’t it acceptable to expose the cruel and inevitable process of aging as a way of understanding what my parents are facing?

More than a year ago, my mother was diagnosed with a slow-growing abdominal sarcoma.  Because of her age and fragility, my parents opted for a health care worker and hospice rather than surgery.  This new situation put greater demands on my time.  I have to fill the gap for the lack of professional help on weekends, and sometimes in the evening when she is haunted by hallucinations from dementia and Oxycontin.  I consciously made the decision to pick up the camera and reveal her slow demise and suffering.  A level of anger and cynicism had seeped into my thin skin regarding the failing Medicare system and the fact that we, as a culture, have invented ways to prolong life without considering the lack of quality at its end.

I witnessed my mother’s frustration over her ailing body as she threatened suicide multiple times. She devised a plan to make her way out to the street and throw herself in front of a car, as if she could get to the street unaccompanied.  We found a hoard of pain medication in the pocket of her walker when she was still, at moments, a viable presence.  She must have been planning a secret overdose.  The bigger picture for my project, I thought, was to use the photographs as means of leveraging a discussion about the Right to Die and Physician Assisted Suicide, causes I’ve come to believe in. 

Taking photographs of my parents, especially my mother, during this period was also a way for me to cut through the mundane quality of her existence, which included me.  The constant rounds of Saturday and sometimes Sunday morning duties of changing her diapers, feeding her, changing her clothing and helping her make the daily commute from bed to kitchen table to hospital bed while she ponders the same questions each day, “What day is it?  What time is it?  Why aren’t you at work?  Who was that man in the house last night?”

I thought many times about running out the door screaming that I was never coming back because I just couldn’t do this, didn’t want to witness it.  Instead, I took photographs of it, and, they seemed at the time to alleviate the need to run and scream.  They made me focus on something other than the pure pitiful banality of her present life and they gave me a much-needed distance from the pain of being witness to my mother’s demise.  She was now my subject and I was bound to change some important mind about end of life suffering, I thought naively.  This in turn would make a world of change, and ultimately, her agony would have purpose and meaning because it would change laws and help thousands of people at the end of their lives.

I didn’t realize my mother was aware of my camera during the wintry months of 2016.  It didn’t seem to agitate her or become a topic of conversation until, months later, on one unexpected Saturday morning in the middle of the hottest summer on record in the state of South Carolina.  After I fed her the soggy Ego waffles she so loves, she started asking about the television crews in the living room.  “Why are they here?  I’m not going to be on TV,” she insisted.  “Tell them to go away.”  I looked down at my camera in shame, believing that it had exacerbated her paranoia. She insisted I roll her chair into the living room so she could see the TV people for herself.  I obliged and said, “See mom, no TV crew or reporters in here.”  Her head spun around in her chair to look at me over her shoulder and she said, “I know what you are doing, Polly.”  I guess I looked baffled, so she explained: “You are using me for your photos to become famous.” Speechless and searching for clarity, I managed to deny it.  But was I?

I was hopeful the conversation was over, but it had only begun.  I wheeled her into the dark wood paneled den, lifted her brittle frame onto the bed, covered her with blankets and she continued, looking straight into my face.  She said, “I don’t want you photographing me, your family doesn’t want it either.”  I said, “Mom, I photograph to understand things,” (and sometimes to not deal with the real issues, although I didn’t say this).  She said, “Bullshit.”  My mother may have said bullshit on three other occasions in her eighty-two years, so I knew this was a serious bullshit.  She continued, “I don’t want you to bring that camera into this house anymore,” as she pointed at my new Fuji with her stiff, crooked pointer finger.  She threatened to tell my brothers that I was using her.  She threatened to sue me.  I was not sure if I was dealing with the effects of dementia or pain meds, so I bowed my head and promised to never bring my camera into the house again, as I held my stomach thinking I may hurl on the tan area rug already stained with bodily fluids. 

I felt many levels of uneasy emotion when I left my parent’s house that day.  I was trying to figure out how the woman that was seeing news crews in the living room could process and articulate thoughts on photography and exploitation.  She had not acknowledged my camera previously, but evidently she had been aware of it.  Most likely, the camera had created an anxiety as she realized it would expose her frailty and inability to help herself. 

I chastised myself over the incident for days; how could I have been so uncaring?  And then came the selfish thoughts: how can she take this project away from me? Doesn’t she understand how many lives this could change, how important this topic is? 

The next day, she had my father phone me.  He handed her the receiver; clearly her dementia wasn’t bad enough to forget the unpleasantness of the event.  She said, “I’m sorry I was so rough on you yesterday.  Do you understand that this isn’t the way I want to be remembered?”  Again, I was stunned at the lucidity and complexity of her thinking in her dementia-ridden, pain-medicated mind. The startling fact that she thought my photographs were the way she would be remembered was enough to make me momentarily hate myself. Then, the harsh awareness that I may be exploiting my mother made it difficult to live with myself over the next month.  Wasn’t this the same woman that had once thrown a dining table cloth over her head and dared me to take a photograph?  Hadn’t she always been my cheerleader and encouraged my passion in photography? 

As far as the photographs of her being memories for me, it is absolutely not true.  I don’t even see them as my mother.  The real memories are worse than the ones I documented.  They are much like this: her skeleton-like frame sitting naked upon the bedside toilet as I change her nightgown, her eyes rolling back in her head as she froths at her mouth from a seizure, the overwhelming smell of urine lingering in the bedroom from soiled diapers, a toilet bowl full of blood, and the long conversation with an invisible figure that hovered above her as she flirted shyly and introduced me as her daughter in her best southern lady-like voice.  Unfortunately, these are my real memories.  I have a hard time avoiding them long enough to recall her younger days when she would burst into the house covered in sweat and beaming from her latest tennis victory. 

Photographing family is unlike photographing any other subject matter.  The dynamics of photographer and family member have a long personal history with rules that don’t exist with any other subject.  Had I considered that her current situation belonged to me? Probably.  Maybe I believed that because I was participating in it, that it was my life too. I was mistaken, the ownership of suffering and pain falls ultimately with the victim of it.

There were still selfish moments in my head that I hosted long conversations on exploitation with other photographers who have turned their cameras on their families: Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home, Tierney Gearon’s Daddy, Where Are You?, Richard Billingham’s Rays A Laugh, Philip Toledano’s Days With My Father and the haunting imagery of Richard Avedon’s father in portraits that document his demise from cancer. I fanaticized that each of them defended me. 

I’ve tried desperately to understand how I could have stepped over the blurred shadowy line of exploitation without recognizing it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I have been desensitized to pain and suffering through the digestion of imagery, and I am also one that creates imagery that desensitizes others.  I have digested the discourse on photographic exploitation and constantly had the need to defend the photographer, because that is what I am. I have developed a necessary hardened shell for misery through visual representation. It’s possible that I have seen too much human suffering in photographs and I convinced myself that taking the photographs of my mother was okay, but it never ever was okay.  I should have respected the sensitivity and vulnerability of the situation.

Since I put down my camera after photographing my mother, other than an IPhone, I haven’t been able to pick one up.  Something inside of me is fearful that someone else will become my prey without my knowing, and also, it is a way of punishing myself.  I’m sure these things will pass.  One thing I can’t get past are the lectures I gave to photo students over a six year period when each semester I emphatically said something like, “The camera has a power, be careful how you use it.”  The irony of those lectures is not lost on me.