A Photographer Turns A Lens On His Father’s Alzheimer’s

At first, Stephen DiRado thought his dad was dealing with depression. Gene DiRado, then in his late 50s, had become more withdrawn, more forgetful. So Stephen processed his growing concern by doing what he'd done since the age of 12: taking photographs. It was the 1980s, and Stephen schlepped his 8x10 camera and tripod over to his parents' home in Marlborough, Mass., to check in on Gene and make portraits of him.

"I was running toward him with the sense of fear that something was wrong," Stephen says now about those years.

The camera, he thought, would help bring him closer to his dad, who was a painter. With each print, the two men would discuss the composition, the design. Increasingly, Gene was forgetting things. Still, it was years before Stephen realized his father was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Stephen's black-and-white portraits of Gene, spanning decades, turned into a documentary project called With Dad. The project is the winner of the 2018 Bob and Diane Fund, awarded this week, which aims to support photographic work about Alzheimer's disease and dementia through a $5,000 grant.

"I would see it in his face — and that's when I would get that sinking feeling," Stephen says of those early years, when he was struggling to come to terms with his dad's declining health. "I started to look for me in those photos. What's my role?"

The two continued the project until Gene's death in 2009. Since then, Stephen has been photographing his mother Rose as she navigates life without her husband. With the grant money from the Bob and Diane Fund, Stephen plans to make a book of the photographs.

Shots recently spoke with DiRado about the project. The following excerpt of that conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you get started on this work?

My father was in my studio around 1987 and I was moving some of my photos around to put them in crates to mail off to a gallery. I had one particular photo up on an easel and my father just rhetorically said, 'You know, it's not a good photo. I don't like it — it's poorly designed. I don't know why the gallery picked it.' I took the photo, I put it on the floor and five minutes later I picked up the same photo to put it in the same exact spot on an easel and my father said, "Now that's a really good photograph.'

It really alarmed me. It set something off. I looked at my father and said 'Dad, why don't we make appointments that I come to your house and work on a series of portraits?'

This was back in 1987. Alzheimer's was something you were hearing about that was really foreign.

How difficult was it to work on a project that was so personal?

At the end of a shoot, I'd come back with tears in my eyes and thinking that I'm exploiting my father for personal use. But I'd wake up the next morning and that would all fade away. There was a true purpose about this. It kept me with him. It was my job to be with my father.

How did your relationship with Gene change over time?

In the case of my father — photographing him since I was a young kid — it wasn't so much 'Why are you photographing me?' It was, 'Are you making a good photograph of me?' And so I always brought back these photos to show him and we would talk about, 'Are they designed well? Are they articulating our emotions?' "

In the advanced stages, he was becoming more despondent. The minute I set up the camera he would walk over to look at the camera and I was really freaked out by that; he was paying far more attention to the camera than me. Eventually the last three or four years of his life, it came down to just being the camera. I became invisible. It was pretty tough stuff.

What did your family think of the project?

I don't think it was a thought. They've been photographed by me since i was 12 years old all the time — very private moments and very public moments. It was the friends not close to me — friends that were acquaintances — that said, 'How can you do this? Isn't this very private and something you need to keep within the family?' And I would say, 'You don't understand this now but this is profoundly important for all of us — for anybody dealing with this. And I'm hoping that others can be helped by it.

What do you think your father would say about this work?

I think about my father all the time. He'd still be critiquing me. He would say 'That one's not so good, this one's good.' None of this stuff goes away.

Gina Martin, an account executive at National Geographic, started the Bob and Diane Fund in 2016 in memory of her mother, Diane, who died from Alzheimer's in 2011 and her father Robert. The jurors included Sarah Leen, director of photography at National Geographic, Chip Somodevilla, senior photographer for Getty Images, and NPR's Keith Jenkins.

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