Portraits of Dementia

An evocative exhibit of portraits now showcased at Boston College juxtaposes images of individuals living with dementia with younger photographs of the subjects, accompanied by brief narratives about their lives. Created by photographer Joe Wallace, “The Day After Yesterday: Portraits of Dementia” delves into multifaceted aspects of dementia, including physical, emotional, community, and health care issues.

The series of 28 photographs is on display through October 29 in the library of the BC School of Social Work (a supporter of the project), and in the O’Neill Library Reading Room.

Wallace’s goal is to destigmatize those living with dementia, to use empathy as a means for connection and understanding, and to tell a more complex and complete story of those living with the disease and its effect on their families and loved ones.

 “A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia can, in and of itself, be quite devastating for individuals and their loved ones, but the stigma that shrouds this disease often strips individuals of their personhood and isolates them, making it that much more so,” said BCSSW Associate Professor Christina Matz. “My colleagues and I felt it was important to bring this exhibit to BC because art can be such a beautiful medium through which to open up a conversation.

School of Social Work Associate Professor Christina Matz

School of Social Work Associate Professor Christina Matz (Lee Pellegrini)

 “I hope that by bringing these images and their accompanying narratives into the daily lives of students, staff, and faculty on campus, it will provide the opportunity for folks to start talking about the stigma, which, in turn, will help to lessen the stigma. The goal is to recognize the misconceptions around what it means to live with dementia and to care for someone with dementia, to be able to grieve the losses associated with the disease in healthy ways, and most importantly, to recognize that people are much more than their diagnoses and should be treated and celebrated as such,” she added.

 In 2020, 50 million people were living with dementia globally, according to the exhibit website, and in the United States, one in three older adults have Alzheimer’s or dementia at their time of death. Despite the millions of individuals and families affected, dementia is often a taboo subject with limited public awareness or discourse, and a diagnosis can segregate those affected from society, and make it easy to see only the label instead of the individual.

Trained as a journalist, Wallace has been a portrait photographer and storyteller for two decades, and has a deeply personal connection with dementia. His maternal grandfather had Alzheimer’s; his maternal grandmother had vascular dementia; in recent years, his mother began her journey with the disease.

Each image of an individual living with dementia is juxtaposed with a short essay and a photo of the subject at a younger age. (Lee Pellegrini)

Each image of an individual living with dementia is juxtaposed with a short essay and a photo of the subject at a younger age. (Lee Pellegrini)

While futility, despair, and loss are real and important elements of the dementia journey, Wallace felt that focusing on this narrow view does little to change the stigma of those living with the disease, and that stereotypical perspectives make it easier to continue ignoring this burgeoning health crisis and the individuals themselves.

 As his website outlines, his approach is to depict the whole story, in order to give viewers courage to act in ways large and small. He believes the artist must not be afraid to show not only the fear, loss, and despair, but also the love, connection, dignity, and powerful humanity that always remain—in the subjects, care-partners, families, and communities. This is the path to evolve the narrative and have a positive social change, according to Wallace.

 “I have always loved a good story,” he wrote in a biographical statement. “The last 15 years I’ve been telling stories through photographs. My approach to photography applies a fine art sensibility to the journalist’s eye for storytelling. I love crafting an arresting visual narrative and feed off the spark of collaboration.”

To read more on this ongoing project and compelling traveling exhibit, including how to participate by sharing a family story, visit portraitsofdementia.com.

University Communications | September 2021