Photographer Laurence Aëgerter aims to support people living with dementia through a new body of work. Commissioned by the Festival Images Nestlé Prize , Photographic Treatment © is an innovative addition to current dementia care.
A component of photography that has long been discussed is its power to capture and publish a visual record of the past. The unique and magical ability to hold a memory in your hands (a physical print) can inspire, comfort and verify.
For 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, the reality of losing one’s memories can be a terrifying thought. Dementia research is desperately underfunded, and according to the Alzheimer’s Society, for every person living with dementia, the annual cost to the UK economy is over £30,000 and yet only £90 is spent on dementia research each year.
Photographs can be very real, visual depictions of objects, people and places. Could photography perhaps be used to help dementia patients further understand and reflect on the world around them? Photographer, Laurence Aëgerter believes so.
When approached by Het Dolhuys, a national museum for psychiatry and the mind, to produce a series of works in response to themes being addressed by the museums programme, Dementia was the issue that Laurence wanted to help tackle.
She was later commissioned by the museum to work under a different theme but she continued her work on dementia in her own time and was eventually awarded the Nestlé Prize to finish her important work.
“… I immediately felt drawn to (Dementia as a theme), likely because it felt like a natural progression from my previous project Cathédrales, which consists of photographs that deal with the passing of time in both their subject matter and chemical makeup.”
– Laurence Aëgerter
The result is Photographic Treatment © a series of five books, filled with black and white diptychs, an online photographic database of 2000 free to download images, and a group activity that uses photo blocks, images printed onto lightweight plastic.
When flicking through the books, you might notice connections and similarities between the images. A winding staircase compliments a twisting ice cream cone, and old stone church pillars reflect the chalky surface of an eggshell. These similarities are not completely coincidental nor without purpose.
They come from a long selection process, with the aim of supporting senile dementia patients through the, ‘Use it or lose it’ principle, a scientific study proving that your brain continues to make new neurons throughout life. Laurence – in collaboration with neurologists and gerontologists – has chosen the images, some archival, some taken by Laurence, for their potential to stimulate cognitive brain activity.
The symptoms and side effects of dementia have been key to designing the image criteria. Symptoms can include memory loss, difficulty reasoning or problem solving and visual impairment. It is imperative that the images are simplistic and easily recognisable to avoid any feelings of confusion or frustration.
The first obvious area of unity is that they are all black and white. The second is that each image has only one central focus point and one subject to concentrate on. A black and white ice cream is free from the distractions of colour or a secondary subject matter in the background such as people, furniture or buildings.
The diptychs found in books, published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, or the exhibition prints, stimulate cognitive brain activity as patients begin to spot similarities and look at the images in new ways. They also act as examples, showing how the images can be paired. Participants can then use the photo blocks, to make their own combinations.
Participants delve through the photo blocks with a volunteer, carer or as a group to find similarities between the images and create narratives. This process of making associations requires concentration and very personal thinking, motivating the cognitive brain which can slow down mental deterioration.
The act of looking through the photographs also awakens Mirror Neurons and has important therapeutic benefits. This happens when, for example we see a smiling face or a scene of love and care. We mirror the happy emotions that we see and feel happier. When dementia patients look through the carefully selected photographs they will feel calm, relaxed and happier. A ‘Daily Photo Dose’ could replace medication against depression; this is Laurence Aëgerter’s conviction.
Anyone can access the online archive and download their own images for free. This online resource categorises the images into packages such as Nature, Pets, Sounds, Tangible, Children and many more. These packages help carers select images that are personal to their patients. During pilot research Laurence found that people react positively when photographs reflect their interests, surroundings or history.
A selection of diptychs make up a touring exhibition and Laurence playfully experiments with another important sense, smell. By silk-screening the diptychs with different perfumes: soap, rose, kummel, lavender, orange, honeysuckle, caraway, clove, eucalyptus and peppermint, all selected for their soothing and revitalising qualities, sight and scent work together to widen imagination.
Although there is no cure for dementia, treatment and care can improve. It is projects such as Photographic Treatment © that will not only support patients but will also better our understanding of the illness.
If you are a carer or caring for someone with dementia you can purchase the Photographic Treatment © books here. If you would like to find out more about this project and Laurence’s work please click here.
Featured image: Photographic Treatment ©, PHT #008, Ultrachrome print on enhanced matt paper, silkscreened with the scent of lavender