Health

The Man Who Turned His Parkinson's into an Art Project

After Tim Andrews was diagnosed with the degenerative disease he started inviting hundreds of photographers to take his picture.
August 4, 2016, 12:00am

Tim Andrews. Photo by Liz Orton

In 2005, Tim Andrews was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. A solicitor at the time of his diagnosis, he had an insurance policy that allowed him to leave the job he'd had for 29 years—news so overwhelming for Andrews that he burst into tears when he heard it.

A couple of years later, scrolling through an issue of Time Out, Andrews noticed a call-out for photographic models and responded to the ad. That would be the first of hundreds of portraits taken of him by all sorts of photographers, from amateurs to established names like Harry Borden and Rankin.

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The project, which Andrews titled Over the Hill, came to an end in June of this year, so I went to his house to have a chat about the process, Parkinson's, and why he's naked in so many of the photos.

Photo by Spencer Murphy

VICE: How long have you had a love of photography? Is it something that existed before Over the Hill, or did that come later?
Tim Andrews: I've always liked photography, although I've never been very good at it. But the thing that attracted me to photography from the start was Lee Miller's The Picnic. When I saw that, I thought it was a great photograph and a historical photograph. It also represented the hedonistic lifestyle that I was miles away from. After seeing it, I would visit the National Portrait Gallery and find myself attracted more to the photography than the paintings.

How and why did you turn your diagnosis into Over the Hill?
After I gave up work, I had all of these things I liked to do, like going to the cricket, reading, writing—so I did all of them, but they were all quite solitary pastimes. I missed the connection with people. Anyway, I answered an advert by [photographer] Graeme Montgomery in Time Out and came back with a professional photograph of myself naked and thought nothing more of it. Amazingly, though, in the next two weeks, there were two more requests listed. The second guy, Mark Russell, came and photographed me at home with a large format camera, which was all wood and brass. And then the third guy photographed me on a Hasselblad. I know what all these cameras are now, but I still don't know much more about how they work.

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It was in about 2008 that I went online to see what Graeme was up to and discovered he was advertising on Gumtree. I searched for photography and found all these people—mainly students—looking for people to photograph. It was only then that I began along the path of being photographed by different people. When I wrote to the first person from Gumtree, I realized I had a project. So I never thought, Oh, I have Parkinson's—what shall I do to make myself feel better? This just fell into my lap.

I wrote to Graeme in 2010 to request his permission for an exhibition I was putting on of the images taken so far. He was amazed that, by this point, I had done 128 photographs and told me that in the same time he had moved to New York, fallen in love, gotten married, and had a baby. Time had moved on for both of us, and I realized gradually, then, what I was becoming part of with this project.

Photo by Chris Friel

Have you found the process to be therapeutic?
Yes. The shoots themselves are the best bit; receiving the photographs at the end is like an added bonus. When the shoots start, you get to know someone almost immediately—you're talking about things other than photography, but the thing is you've never got that feeling of, Oh, I've got to spend two hours with this guy.You're too busy focusing on the shoot, and then any conversation that follows is a bonus. So you have this lovely mix of a working friendship, which has been really nice all the way through.

You've worked with some amazing photographers. Do any stand out in particular?
People have always asked if I've got a favorite photograph. My answer is always no, but I honestly haven't. I do sometimes feel stronger about the images in which I have more of an input—ones that feel like they are more of a collaboration between myself and photographer.

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One good shoot was with Liz Orton. She was recommended to me by someone—I met her in a cafe in Stoke Newington to discuss our first shoot, which took us to some woods. We took along some balloons, experimented with myself in a suit, myself naked, and it was such fun. She'd direct me this way and that way. But for the second shoot, she put me in a box. And the reason for this is that when I had a panic attack in 1999—which is one of the first signs of Parkinson's—I went and had cognitive behavioral therapy. The therapist said, "Your life is like a pile of cardboard boxes. Each is a section of it, so finance, marriage, kids, etc. It gets to a ceiling, and there's no farther to go. This is what causes a panic attack." This made sense to me and was the reason Liz put me in a box. She wanted me to get in and turn 360 degrees, which is not easy when you have Parkinson's. We eventually stopped for lunch, and I climbed out of the box, but next door's garden had a low fence. Liz's neighbors were doing their gardening. They looked at me and simply said, "Hello, Liz, I guess you're doing your photography." They didn't bat an eyelid at the fact I was stark naked.

The nude is a recurring theme in the project—is being nude significant?
Yeah, I do love being naked. I put it in my first email—that I was happy to be photographed naked or otherwise—so that the photographer knew that was an option. It's funny with nudity, though, because people say, "There are a lot of nudes, aren't there?" I asked Jane, my wife, what percentage she thought it was, to which she answered, "About 50 percent at least." It's actually less than 20 percent.

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Do you think Over the Hill is helpful for others with Parkinson's? Have you had much feedback?
Yes, I had a comment from a woman over in South Africa whose husband is a painter with Parkinson's. I think she found it quite inspiring. People with Parkinson's generally don't want to have it, obviously, but it's one of these things that's so slow moving. If people ask me to speak to relatives who have Parkinson's, I say, "Yeah, give them my email address," but I never hear from them again. When I was first diagnosed, I didn't want to tell anybody. I think it's because it's like something has been pulled from under your feet. I was sitting down the other day, and I paid attention to a man walking—I thought about how it's no effort to him; he doesn't have to think about it. Whereas I'm thinking about each step I'm making. And because you don't want to admit you have it, you don't want to mix with the Parkinson's community. But I feel that you're either positive, or you aren't. This sounds weird, but I was very lucky, in a way, to be given Parkinson's, because it gave me opportunity to do things that I would never have been able to do normally. So it's not been that bad a thing, really.

Do the positives outweigh the negatives at this point?
I'd say so, yeah. Someone said to me a while ago, "Wouldn't it be great if you could get rid of it, then you could go back to what you were doing before." And I said, "No, it wouldn't." I'm quite happy where I am. This was severely tested right before I had my operations, though—it got quite bad then. You may notice now that my speech is quite forced, because sometimes when I'm tired or I'm in a situation where I have to explain things, as I am now, I find it not as easy as I used to. That is a bit dispiriting, but then if you get around that on a good day, or you say something that comes out OK, you win that little battle. It's like a continuing fight.

Photo by Chris Floyd

Do you think Over the Hill has been about documenting the progress of Parkinson's, or is it about something else?
Something else, definitely. A lot of people concentrate on the Parkinson's as an idea for their photograph. And of course I can't separate it from my life completely as it's very much a part of my life, but some people have wanted to take photographs for a project of their own that I've fitted into; others have wanted to illustrate me shaking, which I don't mind at all. But I feel it's a project, which is a documentation of me, at a time where I happen to be ill—and therefore this becomes a large part of it. It's been a very interesting way of examining myself and examining the past particularly. It's also enabled me to write in a way that I never thought I would be doing—making a record of the relationships I've made with the people who photographed me. The writing became almost as important as anything else in the project; over the years it has become more thoughtful and deeper. The photography is controlled mostly by the photographers; my main input in this project is the blog writing—it allows me to contribute to this document.

And it's all wrapped up now, right?
It finished on June 17—it just felt like the right time to call it. I've had a few little blips before when I've thought about stopping, but each time felt regretful and carried on almost immediately. This time feels different, though; I feel like it's had it's day. In an ideal world, I'd like to have a book and an exhibition of the whole lot. To have it in a book would mean to have something tangible that I can pick up and look through. But outside of that I'm sure I'll carry on being photographed by people.

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