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Documenting Milton’s last year

Ramón Ruiz is not the kind of photographer who blends in with the background when he captures a story. He spends days on end with his subjects. Emotions are the trigger finger releasing the shutter on his camera. In turn, the people he follows open up their story to him and his lens.

“When I am affected by something, and it touches me, that’s when I shoot,” he said.

There was no shortage of emotions when he began to follow the story of Debbie and Milton in 2012 as he studied at New York’s International Center of Photography. His final project was to share their struggle. Debbie was not only Milton’s wife, but his caregiver of 15 years as he battled Parkinson’s disease.

The project was incredibly close to Ruiz’s own heart. His father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2001. Ruiz and his brothers suddenly became caregivers after their father’s divorce in 2009.

He knew the many struggles of caregiving – the lack of attention caregivers pay to themselves, the tumultuous emotions that remain unexamined, the all-consuming nature of making someone else a priority.

“The project was to bring society’s attention to the role of caregivers, which is ignored and unseen. They don’t have the support that is needed a lot of times.”

It only deepened his connection with Debbie and Milton, although at times it was challenging to watch something he was living as well. Milton’s advanced state of Parkinson’s forced Ruiz to confront his father’s future.

But it also taught Ruiz what to expect and how to deal with it. In turn, it helped Debbie and Milton.

“For Debbie, it was useful to have someone to tell her story, to understand her and to show her struggles,” he said.

None of them knew that 2012, the year Milton turned 80, would be his last. And now, Ruiz’s photographs serve to document Milton’s last year. Debbie told him Ruiz was grateful for the chance to preserve their final year together.

Ruiz finished the project and finished school, but he continues to photograph caregiving and Parkinson’s patients.

With his project, he applied for and was given the Hillman Foundation Grant related to nursing and health care. It allows him to follow the stories of those suffering from Parkinson’s in Mexico and the few options they have due to abandonment and the health care system.

But capturing Debbie and Milton’s story made a lasting impact on Ruiz.

“It was a time to get deeply involved and confront all of my emotions. It’s a lot of emotions at the same time. But it was a year that helped me. As a caregiver, you don’t often have time for yourself or what you’re dealing with.”

Ruiz has kept in touch with Debbie, from visiting her after Milton’s death to conversations with her on his U.S. phone line from his home in Mexico City.

These connections, especially with people who share in his personal struggle, have only happened because of Ruiz’s camera. He says the best part of getting inside their stories is “the friendships that stay forever.”

- Ashley Strickland, CNN