Jennifer Blau 'Patricia's Room' Full Interview

Artist: Jennifer Blau
Interview Questions by Tom Livingstone

Why did you start the series 'Patricia's Room' and over what period of time was it created? 

I’ve long had an interest in documenting different life transitions but also more generally about exploring story and identity in people who might be misunderstood or marginalised. The first series I ever shot was of teenagers in their bedrooms (Head On 2012). After that I explored women at 50 in After Midnight (Head On 2013) which later led to The 50 Book: Women Celebrate Life (2013) a trade book. One of the prevailing themes at 50 was how women are often made to feel worthless and invisible as they age. So as my mother-in-law approached 90, I wondered what lay ahead and how she viewed herself. She was extremely elegant, glamorous and active, and challenged the stereotype of women at this age.  

Around this time, however, a major heart operation triggered increasing disorientation, confusion and memory loss. Patricia became largely confined to her home, often anxious and lonely, and needing more care as her eyesight and hearing began to fail and she had a succession of falls. It would end up being her final year in her home of almost seventy years, before moving to aged care.

Photography became a way of connecting as she lost words and struggled with conversation. Our portrait sessions sometimes felt like a form of play as she dressed and posed for the camera. But they also became a kind of affirmation of her fading presence. She often expressed gratitude to me for the time we spent saying she was surprised I felt her a worthwhile subject to photograph. She felt ‘amused to be my muse.’

Did your narrative change over time?

As it slowly became evident that Patricia had developed dementia, I began to ask: What happens to our sense of self when we lose our memory? What does it feel like to lose sense of time, place and no longer be able to easily communicate with the people we love?  What must that be like? Because, as our world becomes less tangible, our presence in it also begins to fragment, wither and fade. To those around us, we appear here - yet, not quite here.

I wanted to try to see the world through Patricia’s eyes as well as consider how we saw her. I began to explore a new visual language to reflect ideas of fading, blurring, disorientation, fragmentation, invisibility and transience, that I thought might reflect this experience. I hoped to simultaneously witness and convey something of her emotional and sensory experience.

With dementia, despite being unable to remember moments in the short term, oddly, long-term memories often remain intact and, triggered by sensory experiences, perceptions can start to blur with earlier stages of life. We lose sense of how old we are, sometimes regressing to childhood. So I incorporated old photographs from her albums to convey traces of her life and to communicate time shifts that often happen with regression to younger ages. I also hoped to remind us all that no matter how old we are, our younger selves always remain part of our identity.

What led to the title?

The title came to me when I noticed ‘Patricia’s Room’ on a sign on her door in her aged care home. It appears in one of the final images in the book. It seemed to encapsulate both her physical and mental space, at home and later in aged care. I felt I was inhabiting ‘Patricia’s Room’ as I tried to document her. 

What are the challenges of working on such a personal story? 
One of the difficult decisions about this project has been around showing someone close to me in a vulnerable way and the effect of labelling them with a condition (such as dementia) that carries some stigma. Because Patricia is, and has been, so much more than that - as is evident with references to other parts of her life. I didn’t ever want to make fun of her situation or shame her in any way. But at the same time, it’s perhaps important to normalise the subject because dementia is extremely common in old age and many of us know someone affected. All too often it is hushed up but that often increases a sense of isolation for the person concerned and their family.

This work has been an emotional project for me. It is very hard to see someone you love decline and it feels intrusive to bring a camera into that space. But on the other hand, having a camera creates some distance and helps separate you from the intensity of that experience, which can somehow help you slowly process the reality of what you are witnessing over a period of time. I felt compelled to get up close and examine Patricia slipping from strength to increasing fragility. Perhaps it was to experience and capture precious moments before it was too late.  But in doing so I took consolation in that I was able to celebrate her beauty and humanity in her various states of being, in a way that a traditional family album might not.

Another challenge was that I am obviously unable to ever really know what Patricia was thinking and feeling. All I could really know was how I felt and about what I observed of her varying emotional states. So, in the process of this project, I came to realise that this series is as much about my story as hers. Often what we photograph is really about ourselves: for me, possibly due to the loss of several other people close to me, insecurities about ageing and mortality. But I’m sure I'm not the only one out there with those fears!

Were there times you wanted to stop and put the camera down? What made you get through these times? 

One of the challenges of making a photo-book is working out what the book is but also what it isn’t. Editing the work into a coherent visual narrative can be difficult and leaving out precious images that don’t work is always so hard to do.

I have to admit that I had many misgivings as I tried to work out what I was doing with the project. There were multiple themes emerging and it has always been hard to describe in an elevator pitch! 

There were ethical quandaries and I wondered who or what the project was ultimately for, and how others might respond to such a sensitive subject. But I knew I could never control other people’s response. All I could do was go with the flow, listen to my instincts and do it for myself, in the first instance. Luckily my family were all very supportive, too.

But I also have to add, that as an art therapist, I understand that the process of making art is often healing in ways we are not always aware of, and this is often more important than the end result. It is good to listen deeply to what is calling you and explore it. So I asked myself lots of questions about that.

Ethics in photography is such a 'hot' topic at the moment. In your words at the back of the book, you discuss this. Can you tell us more about this and how this challenged you? 

I often agonised about whether I might be betraying Patricia’s trust and obliging nature, taking advantage of the fact that she enjoyed our sessions as I experimented with different techniques to represent how I perceived her experience. It raised serious questions such as: who has the right to tell someone else’s story? And through what lens are older people viewed and portrayed? Were the images representing her voice or mine? Was this how she wanted to be seen? Or even how the family wanted to remember her? 

Furthermore, as I showed her the images I realised that with her diminishing eyesight she could not see them very well. I became anxious about the responsibility of the power balance between photographer and subject, about whether she could even understand and approve of the work, and about presenting someone so close to me in such a vulnerable way.

I can therefore only really say this is my story about her. I can’t really know how she felt except to say she was thrilled to see the final book and see herself and much of her past life depicted. 

What would you personally like the audience to walk away with after viewing the photo-book? 

I’d often go for a  walk and think about this project and what it was about. What always sat with me is: Patricia’s Room is about memory and fragility; about past loss and impending loss, and catching what is precious between. 

Above all, I hope to reveal our shared humanity. And to inspire acceptance and empathy for the less positive aspects of our lives, especially in a world where we’re encouraged to promote a filtered view of our existences. I hope the audience will be reminded of the possibility of finding beauty amongst things we might be fearful of looking at. I’m concerned that there is a collective denial about airing uncomfortable subjects that make us feel vulnerable or are considered depressing. It’s easier to turn away. But denial drives fear and that is what contributes to the invisibility, stigmatisation and often abandonment of older people at at time that can be quite precious.

Tell me about the mentorship program, what did you walk away with and find the most challenging? 

Taking on the mentorship program was both a creative stimulus and a push for me to dedicate myself to a new, longer-term body of work, something I hadn’t really done for some years. It felt like aspects of my MDP (Masters of Documentary Photography, SCA) degree all over again, having to produce, show and discuss work on a regular basis. It was great to have the feedback of a supportive group of other artists and be mentored by other guest artists. And I gained a lot observing other people’s journeys with their own projects. We never stop learning.

Apart from creating a book which was an unexpected bonus, it’s really pushed me to consider and articulate more about my artistic practice.

What was challenging?

COVID hit halfway through and we all had to abandon the idea of a traditional exhibition of prints on the wall and suddenly produce a photobook - a much longer body of work. Then we had to navigate how to have an exhibition of photobooks only to have our exhibition shut down with a new COVID outbreak. What a year. There were all sorts of uncertainties along the way including moving a lot of things online. But of course this was particularly the case for Paul who nevertheless stood by us the whole way and was ever generous with his time and expertise.

And it was great to have this focus when a lot of other opportunities fell by the wayside with COVID.

Any advice for photographers out there who want to shoot a personal story?

With portraiture, I think that having, or establishing, a relationship with your subject is important to allow them to feel safe in your presence. Spending time with them and, obviously, treating them with the sensitivity, compassion and respect you’d expect if you were their subject.

It’s sometimes hard to know where to start and what your narrative is. Just listen to your gut instinct, what is calling you and go with it. The more you shoot, the more the story emerges and it may not be in ways that are immediately obvious, for example in this book, nature images I felt drawn to make are also about the portrait themes of fragility and transience.

What next for Jennifer? What have you planned for 2021?

I’d like to do more with the book itself as well as take some of the themes from Patricia’s Room further and explore other creative responses. I’ve always been interested in exploring the emotional landscape in my photography and portrait photography is just one aspect of that. More broadly, I’m interested in the connections between the human condition and natural world.

I’m interested in learning more about the therapeutic potential of portrait photography as this has been the theme of other series I have done, such as working with people experiencing homelessness (Acknowledged, Sydney’s Homeless, State Library of NSW, 2013) and mental health issues (Just Ask Me How I Feel, Head On 2017). Portraits offer such powerful opportunities to shape and explore self image. I’m also hoping to incorporate other forms of phototherapy into my art therapy practice.