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“Gradually, Then Suddenly” a is a photography project documenting my eighty-five-year-old grandfather’s experience with dementia. A few years ago, my Pop-Pop began to lose his memory. It started with small lapses that we initially attributed to old age, yet soon he would begin to forget conversations, names of loved ones, and even how to get home. I developed this project to help me cope with the diagnosis and the gradual loss of my grandfather as I knew him, while allowing me to be present and available to him as he experiences these drastic changes within himself. Together, we will ride the fleeting highs and the numerous lows that come with dementia by depicting this intimate experience with a life-changing disease.
Gallatin Arts Festival curator and Confluence editor Firozah Najmi met with Amber Salik to discuss “Gradually, Then Suddenly.”
What was the thought process behind the title of your project?
I originally titled it “Documenting Dementia” when I first submitted it to GAF, but I became concerned that that title erased the complexity of my grandfather’s identity and boiled him down to one, single trait, and he’s so much more than this disease. I read the phrase “Gradually, then suddenly” recently in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, and it just clicked for me. It’s so accurate on how dementia works—it starts really slowly and quietly, with small lapses of memory that are normal with old age, and then all of a sudden everything is different. The decline seems to happen so rapidly, and it’s like you blinked and the person you love changed right before your eyes.
When and why did you first start taking photographs as a hobby?
I’ve always been interested in photography as hobby, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until high school when I was accepted into NYU Tisch Summer High School Program for Photography and Imaging, and that pretty much changed everything for me.
Have you always taken documentary style photographs?
No, I actually tend to stay away from any kind of photography that hinges on working up close with other people. I get really nervous giving others direction and that my photos wont live up to their expectations of what they think they should look like. But as I get older, I try to push myself outside of my comfort zone a little more and really challenge myself to experience new forms. It was out of that sentiment that this project was born. This was actually my first time doing anything documentary as a series. My work usually is more about nature or abstraction.
Given that this was a new form for you, how did you approach this project?
I was really nervous to start this project. My grandfather is pretty self-contained, so I was afraid that he wouldn’t want to participate. But he was actually really relaxed about the whole thing. I just did everything with him and tried to capture as much of as his daily life as possible. I tried to have it relate directly to him and his personal experience with dementia instead of having blanket statements on what dementia is like in general. All of the pictures were shot over a couple of weeks, and then after that, he had had enough.
What made you decide to take photographs of your grandfather? What was your initial aim for this project?
This project was actually an assignment for the Digital Photography course at Steinhardt. Around the same time that we got the assignment, my family was working to get my grandfather tested for all of these different illnesses to try and understand what was happening to him. We had an inkling that it was dementia, and I had just begun to grapple with the realization that my grandfather was changing, and he would never be the same again. I started the project to help me cope with the gradual loss of him. It also presented me with a unique opportunity to spend more quality time with him and get to know him again.
What was it like documenting the daily life of your grandfather?
It was a bittersweet experience to document his daily life. On the one hand, it was really nice to spend so much time with him again. As I got older and went away to school, I got busier and didn’t have as much time to be with him anymore. I could tell how happy it made him to have someone take so much interest in him and his life and just be there with him, even if it was only for a couple days at a time. On the other hand, it was heartbreaking. I knew in my head that he was sick, but it’s a whole ’nother realization to see it so up close. To see my grandfather, who was always so strong and independent, struggle to tie his shoes, or climb the stairs, or get lost going to the diner that’s he’s been going to everyday for almost fifteen years was rough. But I think it was something I needed to witness to be able to truly understand it and accept it.
Has your relationship with your grandfather changed as a result of this project?
This project definitely made us closer. I spent a decent amount of one-on-one time with him and was able to just be present for him while he experiences this. I definitely have a deeper understanding and appreciation of my grandfather and I think he feels more connected to me now as well. We talk to each other every couple of days now, usually for about forty-five minutes at a time. We were close before, but our conversations never lasted that long, maybe ten minutes max.
Your piece deals with memory, and by extension, memory loss. The medium of photography supports the ideas behind piece, in that photographs are able to freeze time and mediate memories. What do you think?
That’s a really good insight into the piece. I don’t think I was aware of this while I was shooting the project, but now I think it’s interesting the way that photography can manipulate time. A photograph can freeze and immortalize a single instant, recall memories or insight into the past, and also project desires or goals onto the future. I think this project can do all of these things—remembering who my grandfather was is, recognizing who he is right now, and anticipating who he will become in the future.
Is there a message you want viewers to take away from this piece?
My message for viewers would just be to cherish every moment that you have with the people you love because before you know it, they’ll change and they’ll leave, and there’s not really anything you can do about that.