Unlocking the experience of dementia

A Photo Oxford Festival exhibition by Mirja Maria Thiel

Blog by Etain O’Carroll

In her photographic series, Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man, German photographer Mirja Maria Thiel conjures a powerful narrative with a combination of  poignant observations of an Alzheimer’s sufferer and images taken by the patient himself.

An intense, creative, headstrong man, Fritz Dressler (1937-2020), was an architect, photographer and Professor of Photography and the Moving Image at the University of the Arts in Bremen. In his final years he suffered from Alzheimer’s, falling out with carers, cleaners and housekeepers as his illness progressed. Invited by his family to meet him, Mirja Maria Thiel formed a strong bond with Dressler, documenting his days and facilitating his desire to use the photographic equipment he could no longer remember how to operate.

The result is Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man, a collaborative narrative that combines tender observations of a once creative, social and active man in a dwindling sphere of influence with a glimpse into the thoughts, observations and interests he could no longer articulate. 

‘Past, Present, Future’, Mirja Maria Thiel, January 2017

An evolving project  

Thiel met Dressler at a photo festival in his home village of Worpswede in northern Germany and, with the consent of his family, Dressler became Mirja’s long-term documentary subject. The project began as reportage with Thiel intending to document life with Alzheimer’s, but spending so much time with Dressler she found the project quickly evolved into something else. “The deeper I got involved in Fritz’s life and his emotional ups and downs, the more I felt the need to capture how he himself experienced the breakdown of his creative energy and the rapid disappearance of his intellectual abilities.” Thiel explains. 

“I spent a lot of time alone with Fritz photographing him for over two years. His sorrows and joys were conveyed to me directly which opened an undisguised view into his diminishing world. Most photo stories about dementia focus on the caregivers and the hardships they experience, but Fritz had many moments of insight into his condition and I wanted my images to portray his emotional reality and his intensity, vulnerability and resilience. If this work is to have a legacy, I would want it to challenge stereotypes about this disease by emphasising ability rather than disability.”

A personal archive

Dressler’s identity as a photographer was important to him despite his illness and Thiel describes his house as a magical place, filled with his personal archive of calendars, photo books and awards. “Fritz found great pleasure in arranging the books and postcards that he had made in his creative life. But he was also egocentric, he would look at them and complain they had a second name on the cover - the writer’s - but he couldn’t understand why.”

Dressler also derived great pleasure from being able to take photos again once Thiel’s presence enabled him to operate his equipment. “To give him the ability to take pleasure in something that was meaningful and confidence-giving at a very difficult time in his life was hugely valuable,“ Thiel explains. “Facilitating his use of his camera equipment allowed him in some small way to show his feelings, to demonstrate his interests and his intuitive doings, especially when he was alone in his house.” 

‘Mirror’, Mirja Maria Thiel, March 2017

Unlocking the experience of dementia

Arriving at his house, Thiel would look for his camera and download the images he had taken while alone. “Looking at these images, I got to know something about what had been on his mind, what had caught his attention at the time he pressed the shutter. He still had a great eye for lines, forms, and colours, and he was incredibly proud when we looked at his images on my computer screen. It was reassuring for him, he was so happy he could take pictures again, and I think that was of huge importance in him being able to preserve his own identity.”

More than a simple activity for Dressler, Thiel believes the ability to continue to take photographs and connect with his former self helped to keep Dressler’s condition at bay. “I’m confident that being able to continue taking photographs and engage with his own archive was one reason why he knew who he was right up to the very end. Even when he was forced by ill health to move to a care home, he took great pride and effort in telling me that the image above his bed, one of his own from many years previously, was one he had taken that morning.”

Adding to the archive

Dressler’s images from this time concentrate on trees, clouds and leaves, and his meals laid out on a big table in his house. Thiel describes these as images that strive to root him in the moment. “These were moments which for him passed and soon disappeared from his memory. Clouds were a motif that Fritz had recorded throughout his life. At the end, they became one of his favourite subjects.” Thiel continues. “To me, their ephemeral nature mirrors the fading of his memory, but for Fritz, I’m guessing it was a continuing search for an aesthetic and his lifelong search for the beauty embodied in their fragile and ever-changing apparitions.”

‘Clouds’, Fritz Dressler, November 2017

One day, Thiel found an evocative image of a lone tree beneath thunderclouds on Dressler’s camera but later found out it was a carefully composed photo of a framed image Dressler had taken in the 1970s. His son told her it was one of what he had called ‘the three good images’ he had taken in his lifetime. 

“Finding this out made me wonder why he had done this. Why had he carefully cropped away the frame to make it look like the original?” Thiel asks. “Did he feel the need to preserve his accomplishments by photographing them? Or did it somehow unleash something of the happiness he might have felt when he originally shot the scene? I can only guess, but with his condition advancing, this image with the single tree imprisoned between the darkness of the earth and a menacing wall of descending thunderclouds became particularly symbolic for me.”

“Tree Under Thunderclouds”, Mirja Maria Thiel, September 2018

Public perceptions of the work

While Thiel found meaning and poignancy in Dressler’s late work, others, especially those who knew him in his former life, found them easy to dismiss. “I found it strange how people compared his creative output from before he got ill with his later work.” Thiel continues. “You couldn’t expect him to have the same vision or technical skills as before, but I still think it was possible to see how he had a professional eye, but not everyone was so open to interpreting them this way.”

Dressler’s images will go on display publicly for the first time as part of the Photo Oxford Festival, sitting alongside Thiel’s photos of him at Oxford’s Central Library and later at the John Radcliffe Hospital. This will be the first time Fritz’ images will have been given a public outing. There’s so little space anywhere to include images of someone who lives in a world of their own and has a different perspective. But I feel these images need to be seen publicly, not just on a dementia portal or on the internet but in public.”

Untitled, Fritz Dressler, January 2017

A question of ethics

Photographing a subject who has a reduced understanding of what is going on raises obvious questions about the ethics of a project such as this, but Thiel tackles this head on. “Of course there are many questions about the power imbalance in our relationship. It’s not a story we share on the same level, Fritz did not understand that I was making images I wanted to publish, and despite making beautiful, respectful images, many people saw that as a problem. It’s something I have thought about and discussed with many people.

“I felt that spending so much time with Fritz was a way to honour him and not dismiss him. He enjoyed it so much. He posed, he made suggestions, he loved it, and he loved the fact that he could take photographs again. As I took his picture, he took many of me and had fun doing it. When he took photos he didn’t feel like the old, weak person that others saw him as, he felt like his old self.”

“Writing Desk”, Fritz Dressler, October 2017

Being human

Thiel explains some images she did not show Fritz as it would compound his sadness. Others caused distress to his partner who wanted to protect him and his reputation. “Families often feel this way, that an afflicted relative should not be seen in public, that their former reputation must be protected, and the narrative should focus on their achievements in life. I can understand that. There is so much to deal with and families are engulfed by so much pain, but by not acknowledging the reality of dementia allows it to stay hidden. Without conversations about it, without seeing more people out and about with the condition, there is less understanding in the general public and less opportunity for sufferers to live a full life. To me, allowing an afflicted relative to be photographed focuses the attention on them as a person rather than as a patient, and at the same time creates memories for the surviving relatives.” 

“Snowfall”, Mirja Maria Thiel, November 2016

Encouraging change

For Thiel, the most important aspect of this project is about opening up the conversation about how dementia sufferers are treated. Giving Dressler a voice, a means of expression and a route back to the joy and dignity he found in his former profession were key aspects of her work. “Alzheimer’s is one of the great health challenges of our time,” she explains. “My hope is that this body of work, Fritz’s and mine, can inspire a compassionate dialogue in society about issues concerning respect towards people affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia, and ways in which to offer them more opportunities for participation and empowerment.

“When I first took photographs in a care home for dementia sufferers I only saw sadness, but working with others showed me I needed to concentrate on what sufferers could still do, not what they had lost. I was astonished at times by others’ reactions to the photographs I took and their expectations of how an Alzheimer’s sufferer should look. I was determined these images would counter the stereotypes.” 

“The Archive”, Mirja Maria Thiel, November 2016

Thiel and Dressler’s photographs will be exhibited at Oxford’s Central Library between April 14th and May 6th 2023 as part of the Photo Oxford Festival. The exhibition will then move to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford for a six-week show from May 13th.

15 April, 14.00: artist’s tour (drop-in)
15 April, 13.00 - 15.45: Dementia Oxfordshire advisors available with information and advice
26 April, 10.30 - 12.00 Dementia Cafe with Dementia Oxfordshire (drop-in)

Mirja Maria Thiel 

Mirja Maria Thiel is a German photographer whose approach to photography is rooted in her fascination for storytelling and compassion for vulnerability. Her long-term work focuses on the elderly: the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on the emotional landscape of caregivers and on the affected individual. Furthermore, she explores the underrepresented topic of intimacy in old age couples.

Website: www.mirjamariathiel.com
Instagram: @mirjamariathiel

Fritz Dressler (1937-2020) was a German photographer and Professor of Photography and Moving Images at the University of the Arts in Bremen. For his calendars and more than 100 illustrated travel books he received 12 Kodak awards. Dressler has left behind a huge photographic archive that will be arranged in the future by his family.

Etain O’Carroll is an Oxford-based writer and photographer with an interest in arts, culture and travel.