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StoriesWill Harris ’19, Art & Design

A photographer reconstructs his grandmother’s life after dementia

MFA alumnus Will Harris ’19 publishes first book, ‘You Can Call Me Nana'

Black and white photo of someone at a dinner table who has been ghosted out
All images by Will Harris

When photographer Will Harris ’19 first began documenting his grandmother’s life, she was already well into forgetting. Before she died in 2018, dementia had evaporated many of Evelyn Beckett’s memories even as Will began to reconstruct her life — both real and imagined — through original images, manipulated photos, and recordings. This work started while Will was an undergraduate with his series “Evelyn” and continued through his MFA in Photography and Integrated Media program at Lesley with “Evelyn Beckett.” Photos from both collections appear in Will’s first book, “You Can Call Me Nana,” to be published by Overlapse.

Q. What first drew you to photography?

A. My parents were amateur photographers, and they had a lot of cameras around the house, so I'd often play with them when I was a little kid. They would eventually give me film to play with, and they bought me my first digital camera when I was starting high school. That's kind of what led to it, just them having cameras around the house and their pictures on the wall.

Headshot of Will Harris outside in the woods
Photographer Will Harris

Q. What were your first photos like?

A. They're all just bad, bad pictures, just stuff around the yard. I liked the idea that you could press the shutter, and then later on this like document would come out, kind of being able to freeze that moment.

Q. When did you start becoming serious about photography?

A. Towards the end of high school, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. For some reason, I didn't take art in high school, but the high school art teacher saw some of my photographs, and he told me that I should apply to a local art school here in Philadelphia. I did, and going there and taking photography, there's when I became serious about it. I didn't know that there were so many opportunities in the world of photography.

Black and white collage by Will Harris

Q. When did you start focusing specifically on your grandmother and your family story?

A. The first project, “Evelyn,” that's more about her house. She had been living with us for a while, and her house was vacant. Everything was virtually untouched. When I made that project, nobody had been living there for at least 10 years, so it was kind of a portrait of her but also a portrait of the space and the memories that my family and I had.

I realized that she was slowly slipping away, so photographing her, photographing things about her was a way to hold on. Especially the work at Lesley (“Evelyn Beckett”), I think that helped me with the grieving process. It was about her, specifically, and her dementia and trying to put together the pieces of this family archive. I would describe it as me looking at the landscape of her life and also taking into account her dementia. The work weaves in and out of reality. It's sort of the puzzle.

A bride and groom on stairs in a house with heads erased

Q. What was your grandmother like?

A. She was super kind and super quiet, but she also wasn't afraid to speak her mind when she needed to. She was extremely generous. She had to make sure that everybody else had what they needed. Even in the end, one of the last things that she said to me was, “Don't worry. I'll be better soon.” She was always thinking about others.

Q. How did this close examination of your grandmother and her dementia affect you?

A. I think it made it harder, to an extent, (but) it allowed me to step away and then also to be a part of it. I tried to enter into her mind and to work the way that her mind worked. Later on, after she passed away and after I finished making the work, I guess that's when some real grieving happened.

Black and white portrait with face obscured

Q. Congratulations on your first book, “You Can Call Me Nana.” How did you decide to turn these projects into a book?

A. I happened to make a book as part of my thesis, and I sent the PDF, just out of chance, to the publisher, just to see if I heard anything back but not thinking that I would. About a year later, she (Overlapse Publisher Tiffany Jones) emailed me, and she said that she'd be interested in publishing the book.

Q. What is next for you? Will you continue to focus on your grandmother and family story?

A. As far as the project goes, I think I'm pretty much done with that. But I found this whole pool of images in her basement, and I think that I'll maybe always work with those images in some way or another.

For more information about Will Harris and his book, visit his website.

Learn more about Lesley's MFA

Our two-year, full-time MFA in Photography & Integrated Media involves an intense focus on studio practice and seminar critique, combined with self-directed study in your area of personal and professional interest. Like alumnus Will Harris, you'll go beyond taking photos, to making images with traditional and alternative processes as you pursue your artistic vision.

The program begins each Fall.

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