With Dad

Photographer Stephen DiRado narrates his father’s dementia journey
My last photograph of Dad, December 10, 2009 (Photo by Steve DiRado)

Photographer and Clark University Professor Stephen DiRado has been taking photographs of his family on a large format, single-plate, tripod-mounted camera since he was a teenager.  His father Gene was a successful graphic artist for the state of Massachusetts, but Stephen fell in love with the camera early. 

DiRado Family, Hampton Beach, NH, August 17, 1989 (Photo by Steve DiRado)
DiRado Family, Hampton Beach, NH, August 17, 1989 (Photo by Steve DiRado)

“The camera gave me the privilege of being included.  I turned the camera back on the family, and I took photos of them in times of trouble and in times of love.  I basically wore them down, they were used to it, they never censored me. The camera was like an appendage, an extension of who I am.

Posing with Missy, Marlborough, MA, October 16, 1993 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)
Posing with Missy, Marlborough, MA, October 16, 1993 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)
Stranger in the Mirror, Marlborough, MA, November 2, 2003 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)
Stranger in the Mirror, Marlborough, MA, November 2, 2003 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)
Stephen and Gene, Marlborough, MA, October 29, 1998 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)
Stephen and Gene, Marlborough, MA, October 29, 1998 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)

As Gene was getting older he was also becoming withdrawn, and DiRado sensed something was wrong.  Worried about depression they began a multi-year father and son collaboration, DiRado trying to capture the essence of the man he deeply loved and respected.  The project brought them closer together, so when Gene had a stroke a few years later DiRado continued as usual.

Gene's 1st Stroke, Hospital, Room 407, Worcester, MA, May 19, 1998 (Photo by Steve DiRado)
Gene’s 1st Stroke, Hospital, Room 407, Worcester, MA, May 19, 1998 (Photo by Steve DiRado)

“I took my big box camera right into the hospital and photographed him coming out of a stroke, but I put myself in the picture this time.  Unwrapping the sandwich was a metaphor for me wrapping my head around what was happening to my dad.  That was when found out he also had Alzheimer’s disease, and then there was no turning back!”

As his father’s disease progressed, they spent countless hours together in the nursing home where Gene lived for the last years of his life.  Unfortunately, many nursing home residents receive few visitors, if any.  But for DiRado, the project encouraged him to visit three times a week, and he came to know and appreciate the nursing home environment in a way few do.

“They told me you can’t come in here with that thing [the camera], but over time I became the unofficial artist in residence!”

National Nursing Home Week, May 17, 2006 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)
National Nursing Home Week, May 17, 2006 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)
December 4, 2009 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)
December 4, 2009 (Photo by Stephen DiRado)

As Gene approached the end of his life, the photos began to take on a different feel.  DiRado says he was seeing his father more as form than as human at that point- finding his eye drawn to other things in the frame; neighboring resident in one, or a beach ball in another. 

The last photograph taken was of Gene preparing to depart, in a fetal position that DiRado had never seen before with family by his side.

“My sisters and brothers were in the room, and I was using flashes to cast shadows, but our Mom was still on her way from Florida.  So I cast my sister’s shadow on the wall above my father and brought Mom into the room that way.”

The With Dad photographic series is both a book and documentary that DiRado collaborated on with Soren Sorensen, also of Clark University.   DiRado is a Professor of Practice in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Clark University, and his work can be seen at his website https://stephendirado.com/.

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