Photographing Elderly Care: When Magic Happens. Part One.

Southanjer Rest Home aerial photo

Photographing things and places is so enjoyable. I love the gear, like the drone I got the shot above from. But taking pictures of people is the most challenging and rewarding part of this business. The challenge is: to do it consistently and well, you not only have to be on top of your gear and technique, you also need people skills. To really capture someone in a moment, to have them reveal their real self to you, you have to give of your own self. You need to be able to open up a relationship and keep it open as you work. It’s a job alright, technically and emotionally. 

This job of shooting for a couple of rest homes in Oamaru presented itself as something fairly straightforward: to show the facilities off in the best light. But I also knew any set of pictures I delivered would need an awful lot of humanity to really tell the story. Southanjer Rest Home sits in a lovely rural setting, and caters for residents with dementia. You know you’re entering some place special at the entrance. The inner lock doesn’t make it difficult to get in; it makes it difficult to get out. My uncle told me that as she got older, my gran got confused and lost on her way home from the shops once. It was distressing for both, so it makes good sense that that the folks at Southanjer only go out under supervision.

Southanjer Residents roomMeal prep at Southanjer rest home

Meal prep at Southanjer rest home

The interior light needed augmenting to show things off, so I used bounce flash throughout. After taking photos of the exterior, kitchen and residents rooms, it was time to capture some human moments, but there were a lot of unknowns haunting me. How hard was the dementia factor going to make it? How could I make that look good? How on earth was I to start?

I took my cue from the staff – like Kerri who drove the tea trolley. Kerri just approached everyone directly with simple care and respect. It started to feel less like a care facility and more like a family. This wasn’t really about shooting an age or condition, this was just about shooting people.

So I decided to just go about the job as naturally as any other, introducing myself, making small talk, and taking pictures of simple activities – tea time, games.  That’s to warm everyone up to my presence and to not intimidate anyone by shoving a camera in their face, just pointing around the the room and trying to be part of the fun.

Southanjer Rest HomeSouthanjer Rest Home

There were a few residents whose conditions have taken them to places it’s hard to reach. At first, responses to me were reserved, but as I chatted, gave more of myself, became less of a stranger, my subjects opened up to me in return. And truly, magic started to happen.

What I was aiming for was not just to show people the facilities, but tell the story of life at Southanjer for what it is: a comfortable, safe place in the countryside, full of humanity, companionship and warmth. 

Southanjer Rest HomeSouthanjer Rest Home

We got some really lovely moments that I hope will not only work for the rest home, but also become lovely memories for family members. Here though, I’ve obscured identities for reasons of privacy and the issue of informed consent.

Southanjer Rest Home

Did I mention the pet lamb?

Pet Lamb

If starting was challenging, finishing the job was more so.  After connecting with people, saying goodbye is always hard. Having watched parents and loved ones age and pass from my view, there was an extra emotional toll with this job. 

I don’t mind saying that after loading my gear into the car, I sat there and had a little cry.

But not for long. My day was only half done. I had another rest home to shoot on the other side of town. More on that coming up.

Southanjer rest home residents

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