Photographer Brittany Johnson is aiming to help people realize they are beautiful no matter what shape, size, or gender and her current passion project, Resplendent Residents, is bringing that message to the elderly and disabled.
When her grandmother was unable to care for herself and became a resident of The Leach Home, an assisted living facility in Wahpeton, North Dakota, Brittany found herself visiting the home nearly every day with her young daughter and getting to know both the residents and staff over time.
“My grandmother didn’t have memory issues, but so many of the other patients did. Some had dementia or Alzheimer’s, others had suffered strokes. I was so impressed by how well they treated her, and the other patients. It’s not that way everywhere. There is a big uptick in memory care patients, and with understaffing problems, not enough care. But at Leach they were loved and cared for.”
Struck by the difference between the images portraying older individuals in the media, and what she saw in the Leach Home, Brittany hatched a plan to change the narrative she was seeing by producing her own images. She launched a photoshoot for the residents with the assistance of Desiree, the Leach Home’s Activities Director, props, and a few friends to help with hair and makeup.
“I spent about fifteen to twenty minutes with each model, sometimes more, sometimes less, and worked with what we had. Some of the residents were non-verbal, some loved to sit in the sun, some loved to interact with each other while waiting in line. It was fun, and they were so thankful. I didn’t expect that level of gratitude without them even seeing anything back, but they felt thankful for having somebody listen to them and show them themselves. Any shoot I do, I show them the image on the camera and tell them that’s not how it will look, it’s just the idea. Almost every time people will say, ‘Is that me?’ It made me cry a couple times.”
While Brittany provides photographic services for individuals through her business, subtle b photography, she intends to repeat the project at the Leach Home on an annual basis. In addition, with the assistance of a gift of $1000 from the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation, who named Resplendent Residents one of their two March 2022 grantees, she is bringing her passion project to the Fargo-Moorhead area.
To start the local initiative, Brittany has connected with the Memory Café of the Red River Valley. Deb Kaul, the President of Memory Café, is excited to be the first stop on Brittany’s Fargo-Moorhead journey.
“It is difficult to retain your dignity with memory issues. Until you live with it, you don’t realize the impact on self-esteem and dignity. With cancer or other diagnoses, we assume people can live well for a long time until the end stage of their disease. With memory issues there is immediate diminishment. People are brushed aside, ignored, and thrust ten years down the road to the end of the disease. It’s no wonder people are so reluctant to tell others they are struggling with memory loss. Even without memory loss people who are just older suffer from age discrimination,” Deb said. “People will see pictures of our activities here at the Café and remark in surprise that it looks like everyone is having fun. They assume everyone should be very glum and sober. Having issues with memory doesn’t make the rest of the person vanish. They still have thoughts, dreams, love to laugh, and enjoy meeting and engaging with people. They still have value.”
Brittany will be working with Deb to set up photo opportunities for the attendees of the Memory Café. Attendees can choose whether to participate or not, with the images being provided to the models and their families as free downloads to use and share as they choose.
“The stigma about age, mental illness, and disease is very real. People should know they are beautiful. And in the long run, if one or two people change their minds about how they view the care of seniors, even if it’s just their own parents, maybe those changes will spread to the legislature, and we can get funding to invest in taking care of people,” Brittany said. “People shouldn’t feel discarded.”
In the meantime, Brittany is looking forward to her time with the Memory Café community in anticipation of new connections, a lot of fun, and the hope that the models will each get a photo or two that really captures who they are.
“People who have so much to tell, lived so much life, have so many stories… they deserve something to show off who they are,” Brittany said.
You can view Brittany’s work, and images from the Leach Home Resplendent Resident project, on her website, subtlebphoto.com
The Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a non-profit. Applications can be made at awesomefoundation.org/en/chapters/ cassclay