Sheltering in Place: Cheryle St. Onge's Photographs of Her Mother
Navel gazing can get a little old, so, in the coming weeks (months?), as we find ourselves counting the hours till lunchtime on the sofa, we look for productive and creative ways to spend our days. In hopes of inspiring each other, we’ll be sharing some projects by photographers who have used the medium to explore the crevices and vistas of their home or neighborhood.
Some of us might be spending a lot more quality time with our families than we're used to and whether that is challenging, rewarding, enjoyable, or all of the above, it presents a unique opportunity to consider those relationships and perhaps even document them through a particularly difficult and world-altering time. For inspiration today, we look to "Calling The Birds Home" by Cheryle St. Onge, a series documenting Onge's mother’s days of living with vascular dementia.
"My mother and I have lived side by side on the same farm for decades," writes Onge. "Our love was mutual and constant. She developed vascular dementia, and so began the flushing away of her emotions and her memory. At first I stopped making pictures with her, then I stopped making pictures at all.
Perhaps as a counterbalance to her conversations of why she wanted to die, of how she imagined she could die. And because I needed some happiness, some light in the afternoon, these portraits of my mother began. At first made with any camera within reach, phone-camera, or 8” x 10” view camera. Made in the moment, as a distraction from watching her fade away. I would make a picture of her, then share that picture of her with others I love. Sharing the act of being in the moment, sharing the ephemeral nature of my looking and her seeing.
Now, when I leave our home, when I leave my mother behind, people find me. They want to tell me their stories and they want to hear mine. It's a beautiful back and forth, much like a true portrait.. Because of the dementia, we have no conversations. But we do still have this profound exchange - the making of a portrait.
She must recall our history and the process of picture making. Because she brightens up and is always up for what my children would refer to as the long effort with the long camera. That best describes sitting before an 8” x 10” view camera, on top of a tripod with its bellows extended out. My mother does her best and I do mine. And then in turn, I give the picture away to anyone who will look. It is an excruciating form of emotional currency."
Follow Cheryle St. Onge on Instagram.
See more from our Sheltering in Place series here.