Holding Onto a Friend

© ChRistOpheR nunn
Blackburn in his bedroom, 2010 

Life experiences, and our memory of them, help form the foundation of our identity. Our recollections influence how we think, who we are and who we will become. When people suffering from Alzheimer’s, a progressive degenerative brain disease, gradually lose their memories, the foundation of their lives and identities begins to crumble.

Photographer Christopher Nunn experienced this with his own grandmother, who died of Alzheimer’s. When he found out in 2009 that a friend of his, the painter David Blackburn, was suffering from the disease, he began to “record [Blackburn’s] day-to-day life” with his camera, unsure what, if anything, he would do with the images he created. The photographs became “Falling Into the Day,” Nunn’s ongoing project depicting Blackburn’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.

What compelled Nunn to create a project about his friend’s experience was the fact that Blackburn lived alone, had no family present and was “dealing with this on his own,” Nunn says. Other projects he’d seen depicted Alzheimer’s through the toll it takes on the sufferer and his or her immediate family and close friends. When Nunn photographed Blackburn “it was always just me and him.”

Nunn focused on “really subtle details, because you can’t see [Alzheimer’s], there’s nothing obvious. It’s very difficult to photograph.”

Nunn’s color images include portraits of Blackburn in his home and studio, and in the care facility where he currently lives, along with interior images of Blackburn’s home that call attention to the intricacies of his life and character. One image depicts Blackburn’s bed and a photograph of him and his mother on the nightstand. Another photograph shows Blackburn posing for a portrait on a snowy road. Other images show objects like boxes of slides, diaries or stacks of books piled high in a hallway.

The photographs are, for Nunn, “about my friendship with him as much as the dementia, because nobody else could have made this work about him.” Nunn and Blackburn met in 2003 when the latter came into a hardware store where Nunn worked after graduating from university. They struck up a conver- sation, and Blackburn returned later, gave Nunn some of his books and told him to keep in touch. The friendship grew from there, despite their age difference, and Nunn visited Blackburn regularly in the intervening years, photographing him occasionally, but “not very seriously,” he says.

Nunn had never met anyone else Blackburn knew until, in 2009, a longtime friend of Black- burn’s reached out to tell Nunn something he’d already begun to suspect: that Blackburn was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. “That’s when I thought, ‘I’m just going to start photographing him and see what happens,’” Nunn recalls.

About a year later Nunn showed some of the images to friends and at portfolio reviews, and people responded positively. He’s con- tinued to work on the project since then, as Blackburn’s condition has worsened to the point where he can no longer live at home alone, and no longer recognizes Nunn.

The ethics of photographing someone suffering from dementia weighed heavily on Nunn’s mind, he says, especially when “it came to a point when he probably didn’t know who I was.” Their long friendship and the fact that “he was always happy for me to photograph him” before his illness convinced Nunn that it was acceptable to continue. The photographer is part of a group of intimates who continue to look after Blackburn, he says.

Nunn says there were “horrible things” associated with Alzheimer’s that he saw while photographing Blackburn, yet chose not to show. Instead he looked for signs of Blackburn’s “character that he always seemed to retain even though he was getting ill. He’s this very gentle guy, always dressed in a shirt and tie ... that was more interesting to me.” Nunn was also interested in Blackburn’s “creative, artistic mind, things that I saw that were related to the way he thought.” An image Nunn made of bits of soap arranged in color order on a bathroom sink alluded to the painter’s practice of arranging things by color around his house. “[It’s] something that he used to do when he was well, but it’s one of the things that he still did when he was getting worse with his Alzheimer’s,” Nunn explains.

The series has appeared on the CNN Photos website and on other photography and art blogs, and Nunn has showed a few of the prints in group shows. He’s nearing the end of the project, and wants to work with an Alzheimer’s charity to release a book. Nunn says he “never really knew what people would get” from the project, but after the work appeared on CNN Photos he heard from people around the world who had experience with Alzheimer’s. “They notice things in these photographs from their own experiences with Alzheimer’s, and that’s the most important thing for me: that people who know this disease, that they can see it in the work.”

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