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Arts & Culture

Photographer preserves family legacy through Alzheimer’s Stories

Cara and her Graflex.JPG
Courtesy/Cara Lee Wade
Cara and her Graflex

An exhibit of photography by Cara Wade entitled Legacy: Alzheimer’s Stories opens this Saturday at the Allen County Public Library.

Cara’s grandmothers were both diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease within months of each other in 1999, both losing the ultimate battle in 2004, again within months of one another.

Since then, she has been intent on gathering the memories they struggled to retain and adding them to her own.

WBOI’s Julia Meek talks with Wade about the evolution of the collection and the personal journey it represents.

Event Information:

Legacy: Alzheimer’s Stories Photo Exhibit
At the Jeffrey Krull Gallery, Allen County Public Library
Saturday, June 25 through Saturday, July 30, 2022
Opening Reception, Saturday, June 25 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

You can find more information at the photographer’s website.

Julia Meek: Cara Wade, welcome.

Cara Wade: Thank you.

Julia Meek: You have a very powerful exhibit coming up. And these Legacy: Alzheimer's Stories are a very personal labor of love, actually. Would you share your motivation for the collection with us?

Cara Wade: In 1999, I started grad school. And both of my grandmothers, my mother's and my father's mothers were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. I started this work as a class project in grad school as a way to kind of come to terms with it. And over the years, it's grown, I add a few pieces to it every couple of years. And so I've been making this work for about 20 years now.

Julia Meek: With that kind of impactful twist of fate, besides being your medium, what's the advantage of taking this approach, the photographic approach, to such a personal part of your life, once you were inspired,

Cara Wade: It was a bit of a therapy for me, there were many years when I couldn't even talk about this work without breaking down. And now I mean, I I'm overcome, but it has been this pathway to coming to terms with their loss, but also learning about my family, because it forced me to ask questions about how they grew up. And it forced me to kind of dig into the things that we have that belong to them. Asking of stories, you know, most of our families are an oral tradition, there isn't a written record of your family in many cases. And so this was a way for me to start to kind of build that in a visual sense, as opposed to me like writing a journal or something like that, although this is kind of a journal.

Julia Meek: Would you walk us through what we are going to see displayed in this body of work, Kara?

Cara Wade: So a lot of these images are self portrait. And it's not necessarily because I want to look at images of myself. In fact, in most cases, you don't even recognize that it's me. But because I have so many traits that come from my grandmothers, it felt necessary to be the model for this work. Most things aren't meant to be specific, there are a couple of things that are from very direct stories that my mom and my grandmas have told me. But most of it, it's either self portrait, or they're kind of still life setups that depict memories of them and of my childhood.

Julia Meek: As you describe it, building narratives within the frame of your family photo did that work?

Cara Wade: Well, you know, it's storytelling. I've always kind of been a storyteller in my art. And so I kind of create a scenario and it comes everything from costuming to props to location. So I'm really creating a story that the viewer just gets to see one frame, one moment of but in my head, there's a whole story there.

Julia Meek: Just what did you start with? And what does it look like over the years from that very germ of the idea you first had?

Cara Wade: One of the very first pieces from this series, which is still one of my favorites is about thimbles. My grandma was a sewer, she sewed all the clothes for my mom growing up, she sewed my aunt's wedding dress, she made clothes for us when we were kids. And I got to thinking about how you know a symbol is supposed to protect your skin from the needle. And there was no amount of symbols that she could have worn that could have protected her from this. And so that was kind of, you know, maybe a little more metaphoric than all of the work is. But that was really the starting point where I realized I could tell these stories and get these feelings out in a very visual way that was accessible to everyone, not just me and my family or not just people who have gone through a family member or a loved one having Alzheimer's.

Julia Meek: So those connections are rather universal connections once you open them up there?

Cara Wade: Yeah, a few years ago, I showed a little bit of this work at the opening of a new wing of an Alzheimer's care clinic here in town. And it was remarkable to me how many people I cried with, because there were people who knew exactly what I was saying, because there was something in their story of Alzheimer's that they connected with.

Julia Meek: And now for the photographic process. Why is this particular technique desirable to you?

Cara Wade: I use a 1947 Graflex press camera, which is a four by five film camera. Part of the reason I love photography is because I love film. I love film. I love the darkroom, I love all that process. But that particular camera is about the same age as my mom.

And one of the things that a view camera allows you to do is to mess with the perception. So typically, when you shoot with a camera, your film or your sensor and your lens are parallel to one another. With a view camera, they're not and you can change that. Technically, it's called the Scheimpflug principle. But nowadays, thanks to Instagram, we call it tilt shift, and I can do that tilt shift, which creates a very severe plane of focus and depth of field, which to me feels like memory. The softness all around feels like the cloudiness of your memories.

Julia Meek: Now this disease is anything but a beautiful thing. How were you able to lay out a method or pathway for this purpose and make its legacy a beautiful thing?

Cara Wade: My grandma's were, you know, in my memory, the most beautiful people I've ever known and those memories are still beautiful. The disease is nasty and rotten and horrible. But what I'm left with is beautiful. The memory of them, the fact that these stories keep getting told. Over Easter, I went to see my parents and my dad told me a story about my granny that I had never heard before. And it's bouncing around in my brain because I need to make a piece about it. And those things keep happening. You know, I thought this work was done a few years ago, I kind of thought I had done what I needed to do. And I thought it was done. And then I missed it, I missed it so much, because I missed looking into who they were as people and who I am because of that. So I started doing the work again. And so now like the stories keep happening. I can't wait to do this piece about my granny singing in the kitchen, because my dad just told me this story. And so I don't know that I will ever finish this work.

Julia Meek: So it's an ongoing process of this being an exhibit for the public. Just about every family has Alzheimer's stories. So you feel that you can help them with their struggles through these solutions?

Cara Wade: I hope so. I'm certainly no doctor or anything of that nature, maybe a WebMD, you know, but just to be able to talk about it is pretty wonderful. And to be able to talk about it with people who understand is pretty valuable. For this collection I am also including some writing, they're not really stories, they're more just explanations not to feed the viewer what I'm doing, but just to kind of clue them in a little bit to why I'm doing things, which I hope will help as well.

Julia Meek: To maybe fill in some of the gaps and keep them going.

Cara Wade: Yeah, yeah.

Julia Meek: You mentioned becoming obsessed with your own past genealogy--the memories. What were the biggest surprises along your way, then once you started this?

Cara Wade: One of the biggest surprises is that our memories are lies. You know, you think about how you think you remember something, and then you realize that you don't actually remember that thing. What you remember are the photographs from that thing. If you ask me any day of the week, I remember my fourth birthday party like it was the back of my hand, but I don't. I remember because there's so many photographs of it. And so the things that I've gotten wrong have been really surprising. But I've decided that the facts that I've gotten wrong are fine, because they've become part of my memory. When I first started doing this work and older relative said, you know, oh, you got the timeline wrong on that. And I'm like, Well, this is the timeline now because this is the way that it was told to me. And this is how it is now. Maybe that's the beauty of an oral tradition is that it does evolve with the retelling.

Julia Meek: How does this study and maybe the process itself speak to families that perhaps didn't already have the closeness, the memories and the recollection as well, that you did?

Cara Wade: I would hope that maybe this would encourage families to ask about some of those stories, and maybe pull out those old photo albums and bring up those conversations and have those storytelling moments and learn you know who you are based on the ones that came before you.

Julia Meek: Perhaps giving permission.

Cara Wade: Right!

Julia Meek: Did you ever feel anything but it being the right thing to do once you thought of doing it?

Cara Wade: I never looked back, you know, because it started off being for me, this was my way of coping with what was happening. And the fact that anyone else wanted to look at it was gravy, you know, because it was for me. And I've continued to feel that way about it. Occasionally, I will ask my mom or my dad, I'm like, Okay, this is what I'm gonna do. So there's a particular piece about chickens. And I had to make sure it was okay with my mom that I told this particular story because it doesn't paint her grandma in a really positive light. And she was like, Oh, yes, it's one of our favorite stories. So I asked permission a little bit here and there. But yeah, I feel pretty positive about the story I'm telling.

Julia Meek: I do wonder Kara, how does this collection and what it represents speak to and maybe through the educator side of you, you work with the university students in photography, among other things. So where can you go with this?

Cara Wade: 'm a big proponent of the self-portrait. I believe in many ways, I tell my students this all the time that you are available whenever you need you so that whenever the student needs a model, you know, the self is the perfect one for that. I like that I practice what I preach in that regard. But I also think that creating work that's really personal is incredibly valuable for any artist and having something that you feel passion for it drives you, it drives you to continue to create that work. This particular work, I think has a little bit of a different life because it has that science component to it. I showed this work at the Manchester Pharmacy School gallery a few years ago and I was approached by some pharmacy students who were kind of befuddled by it because they had only thought about Alzheimer's disease as the science behind it, the trials and the meds and the whatever all that clearly not my genre. And this work made them think about the humanity in it. Think about the Alzheimer's patient as a human and not just as a patient. That was an incredibly valuable takeaway for me because I never thought of it any other way than as the humanity.

Julia Meek: It also brings it closer if you consider those students and their fascination, perhaps with your discoveries, if it's okay to call them that, that it could lead to being a tool for therapy and grief counseling.

Cara Wade: Absolutely. I think any art that you make or you look at that makes you think about your own self is valuable. Art Therapy is real. And however you get there is also real. Just the fact that I can have this conversation today and not burst into tears speaks to how this has been therapeutic for me.

Julia Meek: What do you want everyone who sees this exhibit to take away with them when they go? What do you hope they might do differently because they've seen it.

Cara Wade: I hope it makes people think about how Alzheimer's can touch all of us. You know, it's not discriminate. We're not even sure how it happens, exactly. And I hope that people recognize that this could happen and that they need to have those conversations with their elders and hug them a little tighter and get those stories--learn those stories because they're amazing.

Julia Meek: Cara Lee Wade is a Fort Wayne educator and photographer with an exhibit opening this week at the Allen County Public Library, Legacy: Alzheimer's stories. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Good luck on your journey.

Cara Wade: Thank you so much, Julia.