‘The Last Portrait’ shares unique stories of life, and death
MORRISVILLE — “I have my three grandsons and my daughter. I enjoy being around them. That’s what I live for. Them.” — Susan Delahunt, of Rome, 1951-2015.
“What I thought was a hernia, which I had on a cruise, months later, turned out to be Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.” — Peter S. Spatula, of Utica, 1971-2016, on the day of his wedding to Jason Paden.
“It’s pretty much constant (the thought of passing). It’s there all the while. Both of us.” — Douglas Jones, of Canastota, 1942-2017, with wife Donna.
“1-4-3. Yup, it means I love you.” — Jordyn Ramsey, of Oriskany, 1991-2021, what she would tell her children on the phone as she received chemotherapy treatments.
Those were some of the last words spoken by terminal Hospice & Palliative Care patients as they neared the end of their life. And the images of those patients in their final moments have been captured by local photographer Mark DiOrio — all comprise “The Last Portrait: Reflections at the End of Life” exhibit on display now through April 11 at Donald G. Butcher Library on the SUNY Morrisville campus, 80 Eaton St.
The exhibition features portraits of Oneida, Herkimer and eastern Madison County residents who were on hospice care from 2014 through 2021. DiOrio said it’s inspired by a celebration of existence, even in its closing stages.
“Every person has a unique story, shaped by life’s challenges and accomplishments,” he said in his artist’s statement. “The end of life is just another chapter — our final challenge — and it provokes an equally unique response.”
So is The Last Portrait the end of life’s story, or just the beginning?
“I don’t know if it’s the end,” said DiOrio, university photographer at Colgate University in Hamilton, adding there’s always the possibility his project will continue. During COVID, he said it was a challenge to receive permission to enter patients’ homes who were already compromised.
“It was difficult to find willing patients because families were afraid to let people in if they were not familiar with them,” added Hospice Lead Social Worker Stephanie Robinson.
DiOrio said he was working for the Utica Observer-Dispatch as photo editor back in 2014 when the idea for The Last Portrait came to fruition. He learned about a photographer who would shoot photos of patients for Hospice which made him question, “What if I tried that, but take their photos and capture their stories in another way?”
That’s when DiOrio decided to pursue a long-term portrait project, with Hospice’s support. His first patient was on June 14, 2014.
What makes the project special is that through each photo, the exhibits helps highlight all the services Hospice & Palliative Care has to offer patients and their families, Robinson said. She said often people think hospice is just for the elderly or that nurses and staff only offer support to patients in the very last days of life.
“As you can see, we serve patients from two days old to 100-years-old, it’s such a broad range,” LCSW Robinson said. “We serve the span of life, not just a cross section of age, race, gender or economic status.”
DiOrio added, “It can be anyone with a difficult medical condition. There’s a stereotype that people in Hospice are elderly or just have cancer.”
Some photos on display are accompanied by plaques inscribed with the words and conversations had during some of the patients’ final moments.
The quotes, “Came from video clips,” DiOrio explained, as patients and their families would talk to him during their photo sessions. “Not all situations could be videotaped because sometimes there were just too many people in the house and there was too much chaos going on,” he said.
Those patient photos are accompanied by a smaller plaque with their years of life and some personal accomplishments, like Albert Circelli of Utica, 1925-2019, a World War II and Korean War veteran, and Kenneth Hunter, of Whitesboro, 1942-2017, a U.S. Marine and Vietnam War veteran. Others, like Earl Pauls, of Bridgeport, 1936-2021, was pictured with his infant great grandson Wyatt Joseph, who was lying in the family’s 140-year-old cradle.
DiOrio said he was able to control his emotions while taking the photos because he would spread out the photo sessions over a long period of time. But having to listen to the video clips as he was preparing the project for exhibit began to take its toll.
“Listening to the video clips and patients talking really had an impact on my emotions and I really started to dwell on and wonder how that would look for me and my family members when that day comes for me,” the photographer reflected. “I wasn’t taking a photo every day — there was a lot of space in between — so I wasn’t fixated on the moments until I listened to the clips, and some sentences I would repeat 3-4 times to make sure I took it all down correctly. That’s when it started to really have an impact.”
For Robinson, viewing the photos and reading their stories had its own emotional impact. Twelve of the photos on display are her former patients.
Although they are no longer here, Robinson said each patient continues to be a symbol of awareness for hospice and all the services it provides the surrounding community.
“Hospice is not about dying, it’s about living,” Robinson said. “You see people smiling and gathering with their families, some are getting married or renewing their wedding vows, or working in their tool sheds. Our make-up of patients are not getting to us soon enough because they or their families have this thought, ‘This is the end and there is nothing else we can do.’ This exhibit is a way to show people that you can still live on hospice.”
As for the exhibit, “This is their legacy,” she said. “And it’s a glimpse into what we do.”
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