As an artist I've always enjoyed a challenge and felt good about the fact I can work in lots of different mediums to create my work so when De Montfort University asked me to create a digital artwork I jumped at the chance.
Eight months ago I sat down and had a conversation with Chris Knifton, the lead dementia lecturer at the university, and we both agreed we'd like to create an artwork which included as many university staff, students and external partners as possible. The work needed to highlight the effects of dementia and how it affects people and their families, and over a cup of tea we came up with the idea of creating a collage from photographs of peoples hands holding items that were very personal to them.
I started the mammoth task of arranging the shoots and collecting stories from people with connections to the university and using social media managed to create a buzz around the project. This is a lesson I've learnt over the last few years, social media is a very strong tool for reaching a lot of people very fast, and before long the archive of images was growing.
I photographed staff from all over the uni including lecturers, technicians, estates team, librarians, domestic staff, professors, admin and even the VC after one of his beloved football games.
Students also got involved and I tried to cover every learning department across the University which was challenging and very rewarding.
I also managed to photograph objects from the Leicester County Cricket Club and the Leicester Riders Basketball Team which was great as I got to meet some really inspirational people.
Talking to each individual about their object, what it meant to them and why it was important really became therapeutic, for the sitter and for myself. its surprising how quickly a conversation can develop and how willing people are to talk about such things. I think mostly its because the object is so important to the owner and they're actually very proud to own it. As an artist and photographer you have to know when to shut up and just listen and throughout this project that skill was priceless.
The stories were emotional, heart breaking but inspirational at the same time.
I heard stories of peoples parents and grandparents who were involved in wars and got to see the medals they'd left behind. One guy showed me the last letter his grandma had written to him before her death, a treasure he carries everywhere he goes. Another showed me their Childs favourite toy which they couldn't ever throw away because it held such fantastic memories. This is where the Objects of Reference work, they trigger those precious memories in dementia patients and for a short time allow them to remember their past.
I met Keith and Norma Hughes at a session where music is used as therapy for dementia sufferers and it was the most emotional of all of the photo shoots. When I asked Norma what she wanted her object to be she held his hand with a firm grip and said
"Keith, he's what I want to remember"
I knew straight away that Keith had to be the face of the artwork. Keith never stops smiling and his energy fills the room. He knows what's going on with his dementia diagnosis but he doesn't let it get him down. He's an inspiration.
By early May 2018 I reached a point where I'd collected 300 images and I started to create the collage through a digital process on Photoshop which combined all of my images with Keith's face. I use photoshop in a lot of my work but this was something new altogether and a process I hadn't tried before. After a lot of editing and tweaking the image was finally ready and I created a book to accompany the huge 6ft x 3ft artwork which was printed on canvas, ready for the unveiling which was to be broadcast on the news, live!
The final artwork shows all of the collected images and brings together months of work, which I've been honoured to be a part of, and I want to thank everyone involved in making this project a success.