Jenna Bascom: a special understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease
Jenna Bascom has a special understanding of Alzheimer’s disease: her grandmother, Joan Otte (who, with her husband, ran the Morse & Otte grocery store in Durham for many years), died from the disease in October 2009. After that happened, Bascom decided to donate her talent for photography to honor her grandmother’s memory and to raise awareness of Alzeimer’s in the community.
“Jenna contacted the Alzheimer’s Association Connecticut Chapter (AACC) in December of 2009,” says Christianne Kovel, senior director of communications. “For 10 months, Jenna traveled to all parts of Connecticut from her home in Brooklyn to photograph individuals with the disease. She also photographed the Walk to End Alzheimer’s events in New Haven in 2010 and 2011.”
Portraits of Alzheimer’s, a collection of 29 photographs of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers, is a collaborative project between the AACC and Bascom. The photos are straightforward and poignant but not sentimental. The collection, which has been displayed at the Bristol Library and other locations, will move to the cafeteria of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford for the month of January 2012.
Jenna Bascom grew up in Durham and graduated from Coginchaug in 2002. In high school, she was editor and photo editor of the Devils’ Advocate. When she was 15 years old, Marie Curtis, a professional photographer in Durham, saw a photo of Bascom’s that won an honorable mention in the Hartford Courant.
“Marie jokingly asked my mom if I wanted a job... and that’s how my career began,” Bascom says. “I learned a lot from Marie — she’s amazing at making people look better than their best, and her work and love of photography has always inspired me. We’re still very close, and she definitely taught me a lot. I still work for her occasionally.”
Since 2002, Bascom has been living in New York City, where she works as a freelance photographer and photo editor (magazines, books, calendars). In May 2006, she received a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts. Her work has appeared in Smart Money Magazine, Barron’s News and Financial Weekly, Child Magazine, Generation T: Beyond Fashion, the Filthy Rich Handbook, the calendar “Nuns Having Fun” and in other books and calendars. Bascom also does portraiture and shoots charity benefits and other special events. You can see some of her work at www.jennabascom.com.
“I started photographing my grandmother when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” says Bascom. “My grandmother and I were always very close, and seeing her start to lose her mind was so sad. I photographed her interacting with our family to capture the changes she was going through. This helped me deal with the emotions and experiences that came with the disease. Looking back, I wish I had spent even more time shooting her, but I wasn’t thinking of it as a project at the time; it was just a way of capturing my experiences of her. While the images of my grandmother are gentle, they are also honest — her diaper draped over the chair, her vacant looks, her being connected to machines.
“A couple of months after she died, I reached out to the New York and Connecticut Alzheimer’s associations to volunteer my photography services. At the time, I was thinking I would be shooting their events, but then Christy Kovel and I came up with the idea of visiting people with Alzheimer’s and taking portraits of them and their caregivers. We gave prints to the families.”
She says she loved meeting the patients and hearing their life stories. The caretakers, although struggling with the challenge of their responsibilities, were very much involved and were “there” for their loved ones.
After this, the two women realized they had something to share and decided to do a touring exhibit to bring attention to the disease and the association.
Bascom says that the most challenging part was working with the early onset patients.
“These people were at the top of their game professionally, and then the disease slowly made it so they could no longer work. We typically think of the disease as an old person’s disease — our grandparents, great grandparents — not something that could affect our parents (mine are in their 50s) or romantic partners. There is a lot of denial about the reality of the disease, especially when someone is first showing symptoms.”
The photographs of her grandmother and other people with Alzheimer’s disease, Bascom says, bring out a variety of emotions: depression, loss, confusion, love…and the strength of the human spirit.
“Looking back on the moments I captured now are so special to me; I am allowed the time, through the frozen image, to understand the intensity of the moment in a greater way.”
She says a photo of her grandmother crying when the family brought her a cake for her birthday gave her family a deeper understanding and appreciation of what was happening.
“Here she is, on what we now know was her last birthday, crying as we bring her the angel food cake that we’ve had for her birthday for years and years. Why is she crying?”
Bascom continued, “The doctor who diagnosed my grandmother believed that she had the disease for a long time but was able to hide the signs early on.
“She was always forgetful, but my family didn’t think much about it. But it really caught our attention when my mom brought my grandmother to Dress Barn to help her find a dress. The sales woman remembered my grandmother, who had driven herself to the store the day before, and picked out the exact same outfit. My grandmother had no recollection of the event.”
Bascom says ultimately the family decided to place her in a care facility and that Joan died about a year after her diagnosis. She says that, while her grandmother would have days when she would be completely “out of it,” she would also have moments of total clarity.
Some families might benefit from having a document of the progression of Alzeimer’s Disease, Bascom feels. She would like to talk with anyone who is interested in having her make a photo journal of their loved one.
“A lot of times, we get lost in the moment, but the photos allow us to process the disease,” says Bascom. “They show the reality of the experience and may in the end make the whole disease seem less overwhelming. It’s life — I feel really strongly about being aware and awake to the human experience.”
Christianne Kovel says the Portraits of Alzheimer’s exhibit has helped the Alzheimer’s Association raise awareness about the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in Connecticut and the programs and services that the Connecticut Chapter offers.
Says Kovel, “Jenna has been such an asset to us, volunteering her time and talents to support the mission of the organization. We’re very lucky to have her!”
For information on Alzeimer’s Disease and on the Portraits of Alzheimer’s exhibit, call the Alzheimer’s Association at 860-828-2828, or contact Christy Kovel at firstname.lastname@example.org. November, which is National Alzeimer’s Disease Awareness Month, also is National Family Caregivers Month.