When dementia began to fray Elia Luciani’s mind, her recent history disappeared first, but memories from her youth stayed with her.
Growing up in the 1920s and 30s in a small village east of Rome, her family had olive groves, vineyards and livestock. When her father died young, of pneumonia, her mother was left with two young girls, and at 13, Elia was wed to a stranger, in an arranged marriage in which she had no say. Her husband was 26.
She didn’t go to him straight away, but being married effectively ended her childhood. At 15, she’d be skipping rope with her friends in the piazza when he’d return after weeks of herding goats in the mountains, for a bath and a hot meal. She would see the unshaven stranger pass by, knowing that this was her husband.
Nearly a century later, when her mind started to fail, those scenes were what she remembered. And those memories were what sparked her photographer son, Tony Luciani,to turn his mother’s decline into art.
From 2014, when she moved into his home in Durham, Ontario, a couple of hours northwest of Toronto, to the present, he has been documenting her life, and her decline, in hundreds of photographs, along with some paintings and video.
When Luciani began the series, his mother was an active participant, giving her feedback on the photos and coming up with ideas. “She tells me stories and I have a visual,” he said. “She loves the process. She loves joining in and making photographs.”
Now Elia has moved to a nearby care home. Even as her memory has faltered to the point that she cannot recall his name, her son has continued the project, although he says that treading the line between including her as a participant vs. using her as an object gets harder as her dementia progresses.
His more recent photographs show her in her room at the home, sitting on a bed looking at an image of her younger self, or replicated in different positions around the room — attempts to “relay a sense of loneliness, of self, reflecting all those things that happen when you’re by yourself.”
Last year, Luciani posted some photos online, and his mother unexpectedly made headlines around the world — including the cover of a magazine in Poland and the front page of a newspaper in Holland. She began receiving hundreds of postcards from Europe, South America, Asia and Australia, a showering of attention that baffles her.