Photos of My Dying Grandma’s Last Days

When Rachel Cox's grandmother was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease, she picked up her camera to try and hold on to the last of their time together.

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May 28 2016, 12:00am

Mind Meld

In 2010, photographer Rachel Cox's grandmother was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease. It was, predictably, awful. In response, Rachel decided to document the final years of her grandmother Barbara's life in Texas with images that she says were "made during moments of conversation, gesture, and experiences of death".

Cox says she felt a frantic need to record her grandma's slow slide into dementia, hoping the moments caught on camera would allow her to remember her grandmother accurately. So she created "Shiny Ghost", a photo series that recently won a LensCulture portrait award in the UK and is being exhibited in Derby until mid-June.

Her photos show two women of very different eras who still shared a deep and mutual bond. We had a pretty intense chat about generation gaps, how you can't choose your family and the emotional weight of photographing your grandma's corpse.

Don't Smile, Smile

VICE: When did you first photograph your grandmother?
Rachel Cox: When I was 17, I took my first photo class and my grandmother gave me her camera to use. I practiced by photographing her. It didn't feel like an art project to photograph her at the time. I worked out what kind of photographer I wanted to become by photographing her.

How long has "Shiny Ghost" been in your life?
In 2010, my grandmother was diagnosed with a type of dementia that acts on the parts of the brain that affect our personality and our ability to express ourselves. It was the first time I felt like I was photographing something that was extremely important to me. At that point, my creative attention became focused on her.

Can you tell me about Barbara?
Even if you're not familiar with the southern states of America, I think you would identify my grandmother as a very traditional southern woman. She was very vain, very interested in gossip – from her family members to massive political figures on the TV. Spending time with her would be mostly spent listening to her talk about the things she'd been waiting to talk about. She would store up things she wanted to say. But she was also extremely generous and loving, very concerned for her family.

How did you relate to her?
I'm an only child. And being a granddaughter, rather than a grandson, meant I had a lot of responsibility pushed onto me. It was assumed we'd have shared interests: shopping and hair and make-up. From an early age through to my twenties, we developed a combative relationship. I didn't feel like we had anything in common. I was a liberal and an atheist, and she was an extremely conservative Baptist. It meant I struggled to connect with her on any level beyond a familial one.

Same Knees

Do you feel you reconciled yourself with those different world views?
The only time we really connected was when I photographed her. She liked being photographed, and I liked photographing her. She seemed so strange, so different to me. As an artistic subject, that became very compelling. But, as we went through the process of working together on this project, I began to realise that the politics and the stark religious beliefs didn't really matter. Bit by bit, she began to feel capable of showing herself to me in an "undesirable" way, without make-up, looking very frail. Her willingness to be vulnerable around me became a foundation for our relationship.

How did her illness impact on her personality?
Our experience of dementia was unusual. Most people with dementia experience memory loss. My grandmother's memory was fine, but she developed an inability to express herself. She stopped caring about the way she looked, about the way the house looked. That was a huge change.

Coffee & E-Cigarette

Once you'd established that that dynamic, and she was willing to be photographed, what aesthetic decisions did you then make about the photos?
I didn't want them to look posed. There's a long history in photography of composition in posed portraits and I wanted to stand against that. I wanted to capture things I had seen hundreds of times before – the way she would clasp her hands, or cross her legs. The photographs were always made while we had conversations, and because she became so used to my camera, it meant the photographs didn't interrupt the time we spent together, so we were able to carry on together very naturally.

Is there a particular image from the series you think best encapsulates her?
The image I return to is titled Last Picture Together. It's a self-portrait I took with her body after she died, in the funeral home before they prepared her body for cremation. I had to ask my family to let me fly home, after she died, and take this picture. They waited two days before doing anything with her body. Once I got there, I spent hours in the room with her, taking pictures of her body. I took a single picture of the two of us, using a long cable release. I'd never included myself in an image before, but I looked straight into the camera. It was a way of addressing myself in the moment.

Last Portrait Together

Why was that image so important?
It felt like a picture taken for myself. Because, until that day, I'd thought I was just practising on her, but in fact she was integral to my identity as a photographer. I had become dependent on photographing her.

Moving forward, I had to work out what to do without her. She was a family member, and a hugely significant figure in my own life, but also a creative muse. I realised, at some point, I would have to take the last picture of her body, and feel her presence in that way. In that picture, I started coming to terms with her death, and how I would move on without her.

Thanks, Rachel.

Rachel Cox is represented by Talley Dunn Gallery, Dallas, TX, USA. "Shiny Ghost" is exhibited at Format Festival, Derby, until the 12th of June.

Here are some more photos from the series.

Closet

New Hair

Casket

@TomSeymour

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