Students Celebrate Life Through Lenses

Four Photography Students Capture the Final Stage in the Lives of Hospice Patients

Phyllis and Andy sit side-by-side in a sun-filled room. He wears a red plaid shirt, while she’s dressed in a lavender nightgown. Glasses hang from Phyllis’s neck on a string that’s the same deep purple as the flowers on her bed stand. Notre Dame College junior Aurelia Nuber asks to photograph the couple holding hands.

Helping handsDespite the presence of a camera, Phyllis and Andy, who recently celebrated 64 years as husband and wife, never look away from one another. As tears form behind his glasses, Andy smiles at his bride. It’s as though no time has passed for him since the two promised their lives to one another on a sunny day in February 1946.

When asked the secret to decades of marital bliss, Andy, who visits his wife as often as he can during her time at Hospice of the Western Reserve, gets a twinkle in his eyes. “Well, there’s two words,” he says. “Yes. Dear.”

For patients such as Phyllis, hospice is more about living than dying. Phyllis, with occasional interruptions from Andy, is eager to share stories with Notre Dame’s advanced photography students who spend many of their Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with the patients. By offering to photograph them alone as well as with their families, their pets or their most precious possessions, the students celebrate life and help preserve precious memories.

Led by Professor Malinda Smyth, students Aurelia Nuber, Ralph D’Alessio, Sarah Nank and Dominic Schiavoni spent their spring semester outside the classroom rotating between three Hospice buildings. During this time, the students examined the meaning behind their work.

Lorie“For me, the purpose of the project has been to bring patients who are dying back to life,” Nank says. “We are helping them remember the parts of themselves that make their lives meaningful.”

“It was interesting to see how the patients handle this stage in their lives,” Schiavoni says. “It was very humbling to get to know them.”

“The most rewarding part of this project was being able to meet some of the people who are in hospice and being able to get to know them for a little bit,” D’Alessio says. “Even when I wasn't taking a picture of them, it was still rewarding to talk to them and to hear their stories.”

The project was originally dreamed up by Communication Professor Tony Zupancic’s daughter, Grace, who completed an internship in Hospice’s communications department. She went on to write a project proposal and Hospice decided to approach NDC as its collaborative partner. Associate Professor of Art Rachel Morris joined Smyth in working to bring the idea to life.

“We’re only able to do this, really, because Hospice gave us this opportunity,” Smyth says. “And they have been great.”

RalphThere are plans to see this project grow. “For advanced students I think it is a wonderful opportunity,” Smyth says. She recognizes this type of assignment may not be a good fit for everybody and would work best as a small group assignment which students could volunteer for.

“A project such as this requires a high level of maturity,” Smyth says. “It just so happened that last semester I had four students who I knew were very mature and competent.”

The students behind the lenses have each been challenged in different ways by the assignment.

“The hard part for me has been approaching people I don’t know,” Nank says. “As far as being and communicating with people who are dying, that part doesn’t bother me.”

For other students, the challenge has been becoming close with patients who may not be there at the next visit. For Nuber, this experience was heart breaking.

“I was photographing one man and really connected with him,” she says. “When I came back to bring him a copy of the photo, they told me he had passed. I just lost it.”

MikeSchiavoni recalls a patient named Mike who discovered his passion for art at Hospice. “He had done at least 200 color drawings and he had a box with all of his coloring tools,” he says. “He was the patient I probably talked to the most, and the photo I took of him with his tool box is probably my favorite one.”

Mike died halfway through the students’ project.

This is the reality of interacting with those in hospice care; every day really is a gift.  

Phyllis seems to understand this, allowing her to have a calm understanding of death. She maintains her composure throughout the entire photo shoot, even while asking Aurelia, who is humbled and honored by the request, to take a photograph of her for the funeral home. She says she wants them to know how she wears her hair when they prepare her body. She wants them to see her in life.

Phyllis, in her green chair, nervously touches her white hair, checking to make sure each strand is in its proper place. Her face stretches into a wide grin. She is ready for her close-up.  

Phyllis wavers only when talking about the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation which she and Andy helped found. Her voice cracks as she looks down at her nightgown. “All those poor children,” she whispers. Even now, Phyllis does not mourn for herself. She mourns for those who never had the opportunity to grow old; those who never had the opportunity to find their Andy.  

After reviewing the shots and being reassured she will be sent copies, Phyllis thanks Aurelia for coming as Andy helps her back into her chair. The two share a smile as Phyllis offers some final advice. “You have to laugh,” she says. “It’s good for the soul.”

An exhibit of the students’ work titled “A Place of Comfort & Care: Hospice of the Western Reserve“ is on display in the College’s Performing Arts Center until Nov. 16.

Erika Care
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