Footprints

I was looking forward so much to meeting him again.

Holding the picture of the laughing man, I walked briskly along the bare cemented corridors towards his home. There he was! But things didn’t look right.

He was sitting all alone, back turned towards the opened door, shoulders drooped, head bowed. We called to him, but he didn’t move. We called again, and again… many times. Finally, he turned his head, ever so slightly.

“Come in, the gate’s not locked”, he said in a voice so soft, it’s almost a whisper.

He didn’t look at us when we greeted him. He didn’t look at his happy, laughing portrait when we showed it to him. He didn’t look. He couldn’t. In two months, he had become almost blind.

How could things turn so wrong, so quickly? It seemed only yesterday when this shy, quiet gentleman broke his silence, laughed with us, joked with us, shared his life. Now, his house was empty, the walls stripped bare, the mood sombre. Would a beautiful portrait make any difference?

When I visited these folks, I didn’t just want to take a few nice shots. I wanted to know them and make the portraits meaningful. I wanted a happy ending. I wanted them to feel beautiful, I wanted them to remember happy moments. In fact, there were many happy faces when we delivered these “portraits of love”. But this was never about what I wanted.

A patient had passed on just a few days earlier. Another had been warded in critical condition. Some looked even happier than before, while others were burdened by problems we have no right to intrude.

We photographers say we’re story-tellers, but a photograph can never tell the whole story. We like to think we’re helping these folks, but are we? We are but tiny footprints who once walked briefly beside them, long after they’ve walked a million more painful steps before us. We all want the best in life, but these folks showed me that sometimes, there are things we cannot want. Life can turn against us without warning. Until this happens, we may never know if we can cope as well as the beautiful people you see in these photographs.

One of the last patients to receive her portrait was an old lady. When we arrived at her home, she welcomed us like relatives. Then, for the first time in decades, she told the painful story of her life.

I could have taken more photographs, but I didn’t. No photograph could ever describe her feelings, or mine.

As we left, I reached out and touched her hands. She wrapped her old, wrinkled fingers around mine. There were tears in her eyes.

“I’ll be happy as long as you remember me.”

The laughing man
The laughing man

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