SHERIDAN — Black and white senior portraits adorn one wall of Luminous Brewhouse.
But the “senior portraits” on display may not represent what comes to mind for most people, as the photos showcase residents of Westview Health Care Center.
Sheridan High School art teacher Ashley Cooper pitched the idea of “senior portraits” to her photography class last semester, and the enthusiastic group of students gained new perspectives and candid advice through the process of inter-generational connections.
Cooper said Westview was excited to have high-schoolers visit and give residents special attention.
The photography class compiled interview questions that would provide backstory to residents’ lives. Students were curious to know how residents came to this point in their lives and asked advice as residents reminisced on decades of time.
As for the portraits, their mission was to shoot something striking.
“How do I teach my students to take an image that someone’s going to look twice at?” Cooper asked herself when directing the project.
“We live in this world of imagery,” Cooper said. “Every day you see hundreds and hundreds of images. What sticks in your head, or how do you make things relevant?”
Sheridan High School junior Libby Green walked away from her experience with more than just pictures. She said she gained an appreciation for living in a retirement facility and learning people’s stories from older generations.
“It can be weird to talk about the past. It’s interesting to get a view from people who have been around the United States, if not the world,” Green said. “The woman I interviewed met her husband in the war; she was a nurse and he was a soldier. That’s so different from anything I’ve ever known. I’ve never been alive during a war that’s impacted me a whole lot. So, it’s interesting to see their viewpoints and learn how it’s affected them and how they think about stuff now.”
Green knew the time with her resident was sincere.
“[The residents] loved it. My lady was having so much fun. It was different for them; a lot of them don’t have many visitors,” Green said.
Green explained that residents create their own sense of family at Westview but pointed out that it’s still not the same. She said her resident received her like a grandchild going to visit a grandparent.
“It’s awkward at first, but then you really start to talk and you grow close to them,” Green said.
Green’s resident said the high-schooler had a very familiar smile and asked about her family. Coincidentally, the resident was in Girl Scouts with Green’s grandmother. The resident hadn’t seen Green’s grandmother in decades but recognized her old friend’s smile within Green.
Green took a portrait of her resident holding a letter her father had written during his service in World War I. Green has plans to revisit her resident and surprise her with the photograph as a gift.
Although the interviews were filled with some beautiful moments, Green felt bittersweet during the project and afterwards.
“I definitely feel like [the senior community] gets ignored,” Green said, believing society as a whole often takes seniors and relationships with them for granted.
Green said she realizes inter-generational connections may not be valued as much by some people, but she believes people could seek out wisdom seniors have to offer and, in turn, restore attribution to “the golden years.”
“I just wanted to get the natural feeling of what life is like for her. I wanted it to be as natural as possible in her own environment,” Green said in terms of what she wanted to capture with her camera.
Green said the project served as an amazing experience that made her class appreciate older generations.
Cooper also saw the impact the residents had on her students.
“It’s important for [high-schoolers] to get out of their own worlds and realize there’s more out there. It brings an awareness,” Cooper said.
While residents shared life moments and accomplishments, a poignant undertone existed in many of the conversations. As residents examined their lives, many mentioned regrets about how they wish they had spent their time differently.
Green’s resident shared the advice to not be too patient with time and not be too complacent and wait her turn in life, advice Green said truly resonated with her.
One high school student interviewed and photographed a married couple, Dorin and Joan McChesney.
The couple married 68 years ago and has lived at Westview for two years.
Dorin McChesney said that almost nobody from the community comes to visit, but it made residents feel proud to know people wanted to hear their stories.
“We enjoyed them being here taking pictures of us,” he said.
Two shots came from chatting with the McChesneys — one of them interlocking hands with a simple wedding band in focus and another of the two sharing a moment of laughter.
Cooper surprised the McChesneys by framing the shots and gifting them to the couple. They’re now prominently hung in their shared room at Westview.
Joan McChesney didn’t quite remember the interview experience or realize that she was being photographed, so seeing the portraits came as a complete surprise.
Westview’s activity director Yvette Voogd helped connect the photography class with residents and believes residents would love more visitors.
“They’ve lived through things we’ll never understand. They have a lot of wisdom,” Voogd said.
While aging may be difficult to confront for some, the senior portraits have sparked conversations about time, regret and the relativity of it all depending on one’s station in life.
The senior portraits remind Cooper to make time to visit her grandparents, while the McChesneys look back and contemplate where exactly the time went and how quickly it seemed to go by.
“We know we’re going to spend the rest of our lives in [Westview],” Dorin said. “But aging…it’s all relative.”
Regardless of explications, the project’s intent and provocation is best captured by the portraits of the residents themselves, an essence that not just anyone with a camera can obtain.
The gallery will remain on display at Luminous for another week.