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Photographing a friend’s descent into dementia

In 2004, Christopher Nunn was a novice photographer working at a general store in North England. A man in his 70s, whom Nunn had no recollection of, approached him and asked how his photography was going.

Nunn, now 30, says he was caught off guard by the man’s question but graciously continued the conversation.

“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Nunn says. “It turns out I had a conversation with him a week earlier.”

The man Nunn found himself in conversation with was David Blackburn, a world-renowned artist known for his visionary landscape paintings. In the midst of the store the two men talked about art and Blackburn gave Nunn two of his books.

From that chance encounter, their relationship snowballed. Art served as the common ground, Nuun says. He eventually visited Blackburn at his home and even sold him a few of his photographs.

“I was quite fascinated by his work,” Nunn says. “And although I didn’t understand it, I was drawn to the quiet beauty and stillness of his drawings, qualities that seemed to coincide with his personality.”

Nunn had recently graduated from college, where he studied photography, but he says he wasn’t yet pursuing it very seriously.

His casual approach turned into something with much more of a purpose in 2009, when he began noticing subtle changes in his friend’s temperament and behavior.

The symptoms were difficult to spot at first, he says, largely because of the natural eccentricities of Blackburn’s personality.

But Nunn’s inclinations were soon confirmed by one of Blackburn’s long-term friends, who told him the aging artist was suffering from dementia brought on by Alzheimer’s disease.

“I began photographing him partially as a record of that specific time in his life, then gradually a study of his dementia and the way he lived with the condition,” Nunn says.

Blackburn always seemed happy to be photographed, although it took some time for Nunn to get to the point where the artist trusted him completely.

“We all know what Alzheimer’s does to people, and we have seen heartbreaking images of family members crying and torn apart by the effects of this disease on their loved ones.

“But what happens when this happens to a person who has no family and who has, by choice, spent much of their time alone?”

Nunn took on the task of telling one person’s story of what it is like to live with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Society there are currently an estimated 800,000 people with dementia in the United Kingdom.

Blackburn’s symptoms continued to worsen while Nunn kept visiting and making new pictures. He would also show him photos from previous visits in attempts to trigger his memory.

“I recently photographed him and showed him the Polaroid immediately after taking the photo, and he didn’t recognize himself,” Nunn says.

The photographer says at first he struggled with self-doubt and questioned the purpose of his work or whether he should be doing it at all given his friend’s deteriorating mental state.

But in the end he says he believes strongly in what he’s doing and that none of it would be possible without their close relationship.

“After all, the work is the result of a long-term friendship,” he says. “I could never make a body of work like this about someone who I didn’t genuinely care about, and I stand by that.”

Nunn’s photographs are quiet and contemplative, an intentional mood he says was reflective of his subject’s daily life. Blackburn was isolated by his disease and unable to continue doing the one thing he had done for so many decades: make art.

“This left a gap in his life, and this is what I tried to focus on,” Nunn says. “To this day when I ask what he has been doing he says he’s been drawing, so that part of his identity is still in his mind somewhere.”

- Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN

Related: The past and present of Alzheimer’s patients