Will Harris’ new photobook is a homage to his grandmother’s life, as the fog of dementia slowly engulfs her and he attempts to navigate their changing relationship
Before photographs populated mobile phones, they remained at home. Images tucked into photo albums beneath translucent sheets, narrating the lives of different characters through time. From the cover to the marbled endpaper, Will Harris’ photobook, You can call me Nana, published by Overlapse feels like a family album. It is not. Instead, the publication is an imprint of the life of Harris’ grandmother, Evelyn Beckett, who, in her later years, developed dementia.
“She was incredibly kind. She always put others before herself and was extremely generous. She always encouraged me. She is the biggest reason I am the person that I am today,” says Harris of his Nana Evelyn, gesturing to the first photograph of her in You can call me Nana over Zoom. The black-and-white portrait depicts a 16 or 17-year old young woman yet to fall in love, marry, give birth, build a home, get old, sick, and then forget it all.
“Nana Evelyn would often sit in a chair in my parents’ living room, and she could see this field across the road from their house,” remembers Harris. “The field had been empty since she and my grandfather built the house. With her dementia, she had created a school there, and believed that it was where her parents worked. There was nothing, but we didn’t want to upset her, so we played along.” One of the photographs in the publication speaks to this. It was born from Harris asking his mother to squint and look out at the space. “I thought, maybe if she looked at it this way, she could see the place Nana had created.”
The Evelyn presented in the book is a patchwork of the woman Harris knew, collaged together through image and text. “Alright, Nana will be alright,” writes Evelyn to her grandson at the end of an exchange scrawled on paper featured in the book. “The handwritten text comes from snippets of audio collages,” explains Harris. “In wanting to make the most of my time with her, and instead of just photographing, I chose to record our conversations and created sound collages from those recordings and found audio. I combined it to speak to the current situation of what she’s dealing with, her history, and my history.” Harris employed the subjects of their discussions as a springboard from which to explore her dementia. He opened his mind to her illness, and the world it has created, to better communicate with and understand his grandmother.
The book does not show Evelyn in the throes of her condition. The only photograph that alludes to this is a frame depicting a ghostly figure sitting at a table. “That is the last time she was able to sit at the breakfast table under her own power,” says Harris. “After that, she had to be wheeled to the table.” The image’s exposure time matches the duration it took her to eat her final meal alone.
You can call me Nana is a celebration of Harris’ grandmother’s identity as dementia slowly robs her of it. However, it is also the result of Harris attempting to develop a new relationship with her as she becomes someone different. “You have to reinvent yourself as a person, and also try not to lose yourself in that,” he says. “You have to take on new roles but remember that she is still your nana, and be able to give her the same care that she extended when she was able to care for you.”