“Everything Has Already Happened”: Secret Photographs by my Grandma Joyce – Cait Harben & Sarah Mangle

In 2009, my grandmother Joyce Dix passed away after living in a long-term care home for only six months. At the time, I didn’t know she had left behind an archive of cellphone photographs, all taken in the last two months of her life. I found the accidental photos hidden in the phone when I inherited it, and they felt like a secret gift. As an unintentional document created by my grandmother, the photos are a first-person perspective of her transition into long-term care, a space that is not often documented by personal or family photos. I feel connected to the photos through my own interest in embodied art practices and using photography as a tool to trace the movements of the social body. To consider this series of accidental photographs with aesthetic concerns in mind is a strange task: the perspective is too close to both the body and the objects that surround it. The composition and colour are not choices, they are only evidence of the how the body acts as a frame for experience, and how the boundaries between my grandmother’s body and the spaces that surround her collapsed as she aged. The images are defined by the realities that we face at the end of our lives.

Below is an interview with Sarah Mangle where we discuss our grandmothers, the photos, autonomy, privacy, and the culture of care facilities.

Sarah Mangle: Before we look at the photographs, do you want to talk a bit about our grandmothers?

Cait Harben: Are your grandmothers still alive?

SM: I have one grandmother who is still alive, and really one relationship. Her name is Betty. As I became an adult, she became more a part of my life. She always identified as an old person… she’s identified as an old lady as long as I’ve known her.

CH: How would she identify that to you?

SM: She would often say, “I am an old lady,” “I will die tomorrow” and “I don’t do that anymore,’ about many things, all through my 26 years of knowing her I’ve heard her say, “maybe I’ll die tomorrow I’m an old lady”.

CH: It’s interesting that your grandma would self-identify that way. My grandma Joyce used to say to me “Don’t get old, don’t get older.” She passed away a few years ago. My other grandmother Marjorie, who is still alive, is similar to yours in that she’s resigned herself to say, “I am an old lady, everything has already happened.” When I was little I used to refer to them based on where they lived, so there was ‘grandma Toronto’ and ‘grandma Kingston’ [laughs]. I was close with both but I have very different relationships with each of them.

SM: What were they like?

CH: I was really close to my grandma Toronto, Joyce, because I grew up near her, and I would get to see her during the week or on weekends. I had sleepovers at her house a lot, just her and I. I have really strong memories of her house; I would crawl in bed with her some mornings, all the quilts and blankets she had made herself, and the smell of her body odor was comforting [laughs]. She did a lot of cross-stitching—one of the things she made was a portrait of me when I was in grade four. She lived in the same house for 40 years, since World War II, and I don’t think much, if anything, in that house changed since. We were very close, she called me the daughter she never had. She was happy to have me around. My grandma Kingston I saw during holidays or on family vacations in the summer.

SM: So the photo series we’re looking at are of your grandma Joyce?

CH: These photos were shot inside my grandma’s room after she moved into a long-term care nursing home. She shared a room with three other women, so in the photos, you see the things that were part of this group environment: the woman across from her, the multiple wheelchairs… a part of her head, you can see the edge of her glasses… her bedside table. There is one of the ceiling above her bed; the beds were divided by curtains and the only thing visible in the photo is the roller track the curtain hangs from. Another photo is shot looking down at her knees—at first I thought they were my knees. In this photo is her handwritten phone list, with numbers of her friends and family.

SM: What’s that one?

CH: That one’s her bedside lamp at night. Each photo was labeled as the date and time stamp so they are identified with a specific moment. I found them on the cellphone that she had. My dad had got her a cellphone after she moved into the nursing home instead of setting up a landline. With this particular phone, the button that you use to take the photo is on the side. It was easy to set off, so my assumption is that they were taken as she was trying to call someone or when someone was calling her. Unfortunately I never got to ask her so I don’t know for sure whether she took them on purpose or not. The photos became an accidental witness to that time and space. It is an unusual subject—not many people document that time in their lives, or even wish people to remember them in that way. My grandma didn’t like having photos taken of her after a certain point in her life, so it is strange to have such an intimate window into that time.

SM: Oh, your grandmother took the photos? That’s interesting, because I thought you took them…

CH: After she died, I was given the phone and found these photographs. At first I thought that I had taken them of myself, then I realized that there were things from her room and her body.

SM: They’re all such weird angles.

CH: Yeah, the way you hold a phone and where the camera is situated, they’re all taken from a hand held angle, or first-person angle, looking out at things around her. They are a bit disorienting to look at, some are blurry and it’s hard to figure out what is going on in them. The subject matter, angles, and framing are unintentional, or like they were shot ‘secretly’.


SM: They’re awkward in a really beautiful way.

CH: Moving into that home was really difficult for her. Letting go and leaving her house of 40 years was a huge change and adjustment to deal with. Unintentionally, the blurry and disorienting feeling I have from them is revealing of that transition and experience. She took a few outfits and photos, and one or two little statues and ceramic things for her bedside table, but nothing else besides that. There is no space, all you have, as an elderly person who moves into care, is a bed.

SM: It shows to us the limit of care we’re willing to provide our family and the limit of care we’re willing to provide to our community. You deal with it in your family, even though people around you and close to you have resources, they can’t help. One thing that pisses me off about old age retirement situations is a total lack of privacy. People actively archive things and hold onto things their entire lives as a practice of identity, and the idea that you just lose those things at the end of your life makes me really angry.

CH: And it’s a lack of respect in a lot of ways…

SM: As a daycare teacher, I feel daycares and retirement homes are in a similar place. We hear horror stories about retirement homes and I feel very sensitive about it. If it’s at all similar to a daycare, then I understand that the stress Personal Support Workers are under is because they’re under-supported and that public retirement homes are absolutely underfunded.

CH: In witnessing the nurses at my grandmother’s home, I noticed the amount of responsibility and work they have with family members breathing down their neck about their loved ones’ care. The home that the hospital placed my grandmother in was two hours away from my dad’s home, so he was stressed that he couldn’t get to see her as easily as before. She no longer had the support of neighbours or friends from her home. He felt guilty leaving her in this place that wasn’t set up to respect her or see her as an individual at all, but he didn’t really have any other options. I know that there are a lot of amazing support workers who vastly improve the quality of life that people can have in those homes, but the facility and the institution itself aren’t structured to provide that at all.

SM: No, and so often I hear the sentiment of resignation about ending up at a retirement home, “oh, that’s just how it goes”.

CH: Many long-term care facilities, including my grandma’s, are open door, so everyone is coming and going all the time. You really have no security about your space; everything is open all of a sudden. You give up autonomy completely when you move into a long-term care facility; everything is suddenly decided for you. The photos have a ‘secretive’ quality about them, as if she tried to take them without anyone noticing, in spite of being in a public environment where she was constantly being watched. At the time, I was surprised at how much memory she started to lose, almost immediately.

SM: After moving?

CH: Yeah, It was like she had overnight dementia…

SM: Caused by stress!

CH: …by stress, and I wondered if it was from losing that routine and autonomy of moving through her house of 40 years. I saw a connection between her daily routine and the things around her that oriented and triggered her memory. After she moved and that familiar environment changed, all of her memories, her sense of time and space, started to deteriorate. Watching her go through that life change was profound, and I’m still trying to understand it.

Cait Harben is an artist and educator living in Toronto and received her BFA from NSCAD. She has co-designed programs in an afterschool art program for 6-12 year olds where they made billboards for GO Train commuters, designed an ‘adventure kits’ library, and built miniature cities in nearby sinkholes. She co-edited Do You Read Me?, a book of youth zines and artwork, with artist Sarah Febbrarro in collaboration with Oakville Galleries Youth Council. In 2013 she will join the Arctic Circle Residency expedition to sail around the high arctic with a team of artists, scientists, and educators.

Sarah Mangle’s work archives social histories, especially queer histories through journalism, film, radio, song writing and zine writing.  Sarah grew up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia and currently lives in Toronto. Sarah is currently working on a movie about her relationship to her lesbian homesteading aunts.