A woman sits on the floor of her living room in a pool of light from a lamp. She recalls her reaction after a neurologist told her that her husband’s dementia is caused by “brain atrophy.” “After the diagnosis,” she says, “I cried every day for weeks and I apologized to him for everything I had ever perceived I had done wrong. I told him then: You and I are in this together, I’m not going anywhere.” The video cuts to the woman, Ruth French, helping her husband, Michael, from his wheelchair to his bed in a nursing home. She shaves him, sings to him and curls up for a nap beside him.
The video, “In Love and Loss,” was shot by Béatrice de Géa and published last May as part of The New York Times’ ongoing series “The Vanishing Mind,” which explores responses to Alzheimer’s disease around the world. It won first place in the Feature Multimedia Story category of the 2013 Pictures of the Year International (POYi) competition. It is the first video de Géa ever shot.
The night before de Géa was introduced to the Frenchs, “I watched a YouTube tutorial on how to take video on a Canon 5D Mark II, and I pressed the button once while I was watching it.” That was her first time trying it.
The idea for “In Love and Loss” came from Times writer Denise Grady, who had met Ruth French at a support group for spouses of Alzheimer’s patients. Editors at the paper were concerned that the story wasn’t visual: It’s two people in a 12 x 12-foot room in a nursing home. Soo-jeong Kang, picture editor for the Science/Health desk, says she felt de Géa had the right skills to bring out the elements of the story that would make it compelling: an ability to win the confidence of subjects. “My perspective, from looking at a lot of multimedia pieces, is that emotion comes first,” Kang says. “You need a central figure who the viewer can connect with.” For the story to work, the photographer needed to get Ruth to reveal herself and show her relationship honestly. Says Kang, “I know Beatrice’s work and how she works as a photographer, and I thought if anyone could show Ruth’s life it would be Beatrice.”
Kang and Nancy Donaldson, multimedia producer at The Times, have produced several multimedia pieces for “The Vanishing Mind” series. This was not their first time working with a photographer new to video. In 2010, shortly after the debut of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, they sent staff photographer Todd Heisler to shoot his first video in a village in Colombia where several members of one family are afflicted with hereditary early onset Alzheimer’s. Since then, Heisler has shot more videos as well as stills for “The Vanishing Mind” and other Times features.
De Géa, however, was wary of attempting video. The first time she accompanied Grady to talk to the Frenchs, she says, “I was only observing.” She returned the next day alone. “When I get scared, I can’t have anyone looking at me. I’ll lose my confidence.” On her second visit, de Géa recalls, “I was holding Michael’s incredibly soft hands while I was talking to [Ruth]. That was my way of connecting with him while I was talking with her. The connection was made really quickly.” The love the couple felt was “palpable,” she says. “I thought: This is what I’m going to have to portray, the love and the respect they have for each other.”
She asked Ruth to go on with her daily routine while she shot stills. “I thought, ‘I‘m going to do what I do best. I’ll shoot a lot of stills, no video at all,’” de Géa recalls. “To shoot video you need a tripod, but I‘m in this small room, there’s tons of stuff, the tripod didn’t fit. That made me sweat.” The tripod felt so cumbersome, she worried her presence was altering the story.
When she reviewed her still images that night, however, she felt confident about where she had positioned herself to get the images, and was inspired to try to capture the same moments of tenderness on video. She recalls thinking, “‘I’m going to try to make this image move now.’ That was a very primitive way of thinking, but I knew no other way to handle it.”
To get video of the couple in bed, she had to hold her camera just inches from Michael’s face, using a 24-70mm lens. “I always take my camera and show how close I’m going to get, and say, ‘If you’re not comfortable, you can tell me.’” She relied on Ruth to let her know if her husband was uneasy. Working so closely, de Géa recalls, “I decided to hand hold the camera and tried not to move. I’d try not to breathe.”
While Ruth sang to Michael, de Géa set up a tripod in front of Michael’s chair to keep her camera focused on his face, as he finished some of the lines of the song, slurring his words. She used the mic on her camera to record their singing.
When Kang and Donaldson heard de Géa’s audio, they knew they had the makings of a strong story, “because all the emotion was there,” Kang says. “Audio is the spine of a good narrative, though photographers don’t like to hear it.”
To get more audio that could be used as voiceover Donaldson met and interviewed Ruth, but her answers sounded flat and rushed—informative, but impersonal. “She kind of froze up,” Kang says. Kang and Donaldson decided to send de Géa with an Edirol audio recorder and a lavaliere mic to Ruth’s home to try asking Donaldson’s interview questions again.
De Géa thought up methods for getting Ruth to relax. She arrived at Ruth’s apartment before sunset, while there was still some sunlight in the room, and placed her camera on a tripod. “I said, ‘Ruth let’s just sit on your floor, and we’re going to chat.’ That brought her voice down.” As the sun went down, Ruth turned on a light beside her. “That was my shot,” de Géa says. She remained silent until Ruth finished answering each question and, as she listened, she sometimes closed her eyes and moved her hand like an orchestra conductor, encouraging Ruth to slow her speech.
De Géa, who was born in France, says her own shyness about speaking English has helped her put people at ease. “I know how it is to be uncomfortable. I’m aware that if I walk into a room and I don’t know people, I know how to make them comfortable because I’ve learned how to make myself comfortable.”
In her first attempts at getting audio and video, de Géa avoided “the rookie mistakes that photographers make,” says Kang. “They start chasing after the subjects, like a photographer would do.” When she photographed Ruth shaving Michael for example, de Géa set her camera on the tripod, and let Ruth come in and out of the frame. She also shot water running down the drain of the sink as Ruth rinses the razor. This footage appears in the video at the moment Ruth explains that when she and her husband nap together, “That’s the time when I don’t really notice there’s a problem.” Says Kang, “As you’re editing video, you are looking for those details as metaphors.”
On her four visits, de Géa shot about 12 hours of video. Donaldson did the initial edit of the footage, intersplicing it with de Géa’s still images. The Times’ Nick Harbaugh then did the final editing and mixing of the piece, which runs just over five minutes in length. Early in the editing process, the team decided to use the audio of the Frenchs singing that de Géa had shot with her camera mic, though the quality wasn’t good, “because the content was important,” Kang says.
De Géa, who has stayed in touch with Ruth since the multimedia piece was published, says the finished video accomplishes what she had set out to do when she first met the couple. “Ruth told me, ‘I want this to be a tribute to Michael.’ And because I had so much respect for them, I thought, ‘I’m going to do this piece for you.’”
Watch “In Love and Loss” below: