Exhibition challenges people’s preconceptions of hospices

Categories: People & Places.

Forty people representing the work of St Gemma’s Hospice in Leeds have had their portraits captured as part of a thought-provoking exhibition to mark the charity’s 40th anniversary.

Emily Clark, St Gemma’s 40th Anniversary Manager, wanted to shine the spotlight on the hospice’s patients, families, volunteers and staff.   “St Gemma’s Hospice was only able to first open 40 years ago and now continue to do such important work because of people power. This project was a way of celebrating the people and the wider community who provide such unwavering support.”

The exhibition reveals the sometimes surprising and heart-warming truth about hospice care. The powerful portraits demonstrate strong feelings of hope, love, happiness, humour and bravery.

“By going behind the scenes, showing the diversity of people and roles, I hoped this would show people the reality of hospice care. We all react strongly to real faces and discovering other people’s experiences, so I knew that photography combined with personal interviews would be a really emotive combination.”

Emily approached photographer Olivia Hemingway after seeing her series in support of the Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, where she photographed and interviewed 12 people including Sir Patrick Stewart. Olivia’s work focuses on people’s lives in everyday surroundings, whether they are illustrator Quentin Blake at home, a moody shot of musician Tricky or protesters on an anti-war march.

She photographed the 40 Faces in places that were special to them and sometimes with objects that helped to tell their story. “It is really important to me that people feel as comfortable as possible when I am photographing them, and I try to prioritise how people are feeling, over the photographs themselves, particularly when the subject matter is so sensitive. This approach helps to put people at ease – I feel this comes through in the images. “

One of the people photographed is India, a teenager whose mum Karen was a patient at the hospice last year. India shared her story about spending time with her mum at St Gemma’s Hospice: “The hospice was not what I expected, it was lovely. We had a few Saturday nights at St Gemma’s. We sat there one Saturday and I did all mum’s make-up and we had a movie night.”

Patients at the hospice were very happy to be photographed and interviewed. “During illness or at the end of life is not typically a time when people have their photographs taken, but it was important to not shy away from capturing people’s real experiences” Emily says.

“They generally felt honoured and humbled, especially to be photographed by Olivia, a professional. They were all very keen to talk about how St Gemma’s Hospice had supported them, and also to have the chance to talk about their lives. For the patients on the ward it was a chance to do something very different, and an opportunity to make new, happy memories with their families. One patient said with a smile that he always knew he would end up in a museum. The photographs have gone on to be cherished by patients and their loved ones.”

The project took several months to complete. “With 40 photo shoots to plan and deliver we were on a tight schedule, but we ensured we made time for the people taking part – that was really important” Olivia says.

“Emily’s planning was impeccable, and she is very thoughtful and considered all the time. As well as photographing people in the hospice, we visited people in special places to them, in their homes, we listened to stories, talked about their memories, hopes and plans, drank a lot of tea, fussed a lot of dogs and talked a lot – coincidentally most of my favourite things to do.”

After the exhibition closes the portraits will go on tour around Leeds, popping up in shopping centres, universities and town halls. “It will be great to see the project grow beyond the Leeds City Museum exhibition” Olivia says, “and the use of posters in various pop up venues will mean it can also reach a wider audience.”

“The aim of the 40 Faces exhibition is to present a different side of hospice care and to challenge people’s preconceptions” she says. “I hope the images capture something of each person, their point of view and their personal experience. It was a privilege to hear each individual story and to spend time with them.”

The exhibition is open till Sunday 23 September. For more information visit St Gemma’s Hospice – 40 Faces

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