Patricia Garnett sometimes gets strange looks out in public.
From a distance — toting a baby carrier, pushing a stroller, or with a tiny bundle swaddled to her chest — Garnett resembles any other loving Saint John mom.
But up close, there's a difference. The baby's wide blue eyes are plastic and unblinking. The wisps of hair on their little heads are painted on.
Garnett is known in the community as "the doll lady."
When I started to understand Patricia, I felt like I had an obligation to help other people understand her, too.- Chris Donovan, photographer
"I had people ask me before why I have them," she said. "They go, 'that's not a real baby, that's a doll that she has!' I just don't say nothing, I let it go. I don't want an argument with no one."
Garnett, 45, is a warm-hearted west Saint Johner who enjoys reading, puzzles, riding the bus, and writing letters and cards to her friends. But to say her life has been difficult is an understatement.
She suffered brain damage as a baby and has lived with a caretaker all of her life. As a child, she was raped by her father and became pregnant. She gave her son up for adoption and has never met him.
She cares for her dolls to cope with the trauma.
Saint John-born freelance photographer Chris Donovan, 22, met Garnett in 2013 when he approached her for a photograph for his popular Facebook group, Humans of Saint John. They struck up a friendship.
"When I started to understand Patricia, I felt like I had an obligation to help other people understand her, too," Donovan said.
'Taken advantage of her whole life'
He contacted her sister and caregivers to discuss doing a photo essay. They were "a little bit anxious about it, initially," Donovan said.
"That's understandable considering that Patricia is in a vulnerable place. She has been taken advantage her whole life: I didn't want to be part of that taking advantage in any way."
With the full co-operation of Garnett, her family, and caregivers, he shot the photo essay, "Patricia's Dolls," in August 2017. In November, Donovan's work won Gold in the domestic picture category of the College Photographer of the Year competition, an international contest for student photographers that gathered 11,000 submissions worldwide. Donovan placed third in the portfolio category, which takes into account a photographer's overall work.
Donovan hopes the award-winning photo story will help people understand Garnett — and treat her, and others in the community who are dealing with difficult circumstances, with more compassion.
Chris Donovan's full photo essay, "Patricia's Dolls," is published below.