The Sunday Magazine

Photographing his mother's dementia made her feel alive again

In Alisa Siegel's documentary, photographer Tony Luciani describes how taking photos of his mother, who is suffering from dementia, brought her a sense of purpose and a feeling of joy. “She was playing again, and to hell with what people think,” he said.
Elia Luciani was 91, and in the early stages of dementia, when she and her son Tony began creating photographs together. This one is called ET Call Home. (Tony Luciani)

Originally published on March 29, 2019.

The project that would change Elia Luciani's life began with a single look at her reflection.

Elia was at the time 91 years old and in the early stages of dementia. She was waiting to use the washroom while her adult son Tony Luciani tried out his new camera in the bathroom mirror.

"I see her head peering around the corner," he remembered.

Taken by her reflection, "she jumped in front of the mirror and she started doing a little dance, waving her hands up in the air."

Tony's shutter started clicking. 

Elia had recently been moved from Toronto's Corso Italia neighbourhood to Tony's home in Durham, Ont., and worried that she was bored and lonely, he had been casting around for ways to engage her.

She had arrived in Durham "ready to die," he said — but something changed that day in the bathroom.

"I thought, 'oh my god,' I thought of something we can do together, and it was photography," he said.

The moment that started it all — a photo bomb by Elia while Tony was trying out his new camera in the bathroom mirror. (Tony Luciani)

The collection of photographs the two would create together over the next two years, named MAMMA: In the Meantime, have now been seen around the world.

"There hasn't been a country, possibly Afghanistan, that hasn't produced something about my mother, her dementia, our collaboration," said Tony.

All of that exposure has won hundreds of fans for Elia, who send her postcards and notes of support, and even hand-knitted socks and shawls.

They've connected with the vital, expressive woman they see in the photographs, shown in moments of rest, contemplation, frustration, and most of all, in play.

"We're doing something that made her feel alive again," he said. 

She was playing again, and to hell with what people think. - Tony Luciani

In many ways, said Tony, his mother was making up for lost time.

Engaged at age 13 in her native Italy to a man twice her age, "my mum missed out on her childhood, she went from kid to woman with nothing in between. I think all of the play that we were doing here, she was capturing that time that she didn't have."

Tony began each photo session by asking his mother to tell him stories from her life. Out of the story would come a concept for a new picture.

"She would go to her room and bring boxes of clothes and shoes she hasn't worn for years," he said. "She was playing again, and to hell with what people think."

Elia also took a turn on the other side of the lens after Tony found a simple point-and-shoot camera in a drawer.

"I taped up all the buttons that weren't necessary," he explained. "And she just wandered around the house and I gave her a project to do of taking ten photos a day."

What he saw when he uploaded the results to his computer delighted him: Elia documented the inside of the fridge, her drawers of clothes, a face on television.

"It was the first time she ever held a camera in her life. She was 91 at that point."

A self-portait taken by Elia Luciani entitled 'Alone with family.' Her son had challenged her to take ten photographs a day. (Elia Luciani)

For three years, the two continued a fertile artistic collaboration, until Elia fell and broke her arm, sending her to an assisted living home.

Her dementia had progressed, and she was no longer able to live with Tony or grasp the project that had brought her to life two years before.

"I don't take pictures of her anymore, she just wouldn't understand why. It wouldn't be fair to her," he explained.

Her illness, Tony said, created a window for her to recapture parts of herself long dormant.

A photo by Tony Luciani called 'Internal Reflection' showing his mother simultaneously as a little girl and in her early 90s. (Tony Luciani)

"If it wasn't for dementia, the series never would have happened. Now that she has full-blown dementia, she doesn't understand the scope of what happened," he said.

When he visits his now 96-year-old mother at her new home, "she doesn't know which son has walked in the door," he said. "That's okay."

The photographs from MAMMA: In the Meantime continue to draw crowds.

Click 'listen' above to hear Alisa Siegel's documentary "Mamma in the Mirror."

Tony and his mother Elia now, in her room at her assisted living home. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)


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