Age-old beauty

Age-old beauty

Jutta Bourgeois, a resident of St. Antoine, looks at her portrait during a photo exhibit at the residence on Monday, May 14. (Breeze photos by Lauren Clem)
Pawtucket photographer captures portraits of residents at St. Antoine

NORTH SMITHFIELD – For Cynthia Wilcox, a Pawtucket-based photographer and social worker, her latest project happened almost by accident. An avid traveler, Wilcox has traveled around the globe with photography organizations and often found herself photographing the elderly people she met in other countries. It was on one of these international trips that she had the idea to photograph senior citizens back in Rhode Island.

“After a while I sat down one day and said, ‘Why don’t you just stay home? Why don’t you take pictures of elderly folks at home?’” she said.

Last year, Wilcox started “The Grandmother Connection,” a photography project focusing on the bond between grandmothers and their grandchildren. It was through this project that she met April Paniccia, a social worker at St. Antoine Residence. Paniccia was looking for an opportunity to engage the residents of her unit and was impressed by Wilcox’s black and white portraits of elderly individuals around Pawtucket and other areas of the state. She invited Wilcox to photograph the residents in celebration of National Nursing Home Week, an invitation Wilcox was happy to accept.

“I called her and emailed to see what we could do. She’s a social worker, I’m a social worker, it was a match,” said Paniccia.

As with her other photography projects, Wilcox offered her services free of charge, giving the families a copy of the portraits and posting them online for download. She and Paniccia set up photo sessions with each of the residents in an area of the home with plenty of natural sunlight, using the sun’s rays to play off the wrinkles and curves of the residents’ faces. Wilcox said one of her favorite things about photographing elderly individuals is the expressiveness of their faces, which often display evidence of long lives of happiness or hardship.

“They have their history on their faces. They have their soul on their faces,” she said.

For some of the residents, the opportunity to have their portraits taken was thrilling. For others, it was nerve-wracking. Wilcox shared a story of one resident who required a social worker to grab her attention before breaking into a smile for her photo. Another resident didn’t want her portrait taken because she thought she was too ugly to be photographed. After some convincing from Wilcox, she allowed the photo to be taken, and was surprised at the results.

“Is that me? Oh, that’s nice. I’m pretty,” Wilcox recounted her saying.

“Everybody that was there in the room was crying,” she added.

Wilcox said she especially loved photographing one resident, 108-year-old Sister Helen, whose portrait “looks like she’s about to elevate into heaven.” The entire project was an opportunity for her to reach out to her community and interact with a population not often seen from behind a camera lens.

“This is just sort of a gift I can give back,” she said. “The interactions I had with these folks was just so inspiring to me.”

On Monday, staff exhibited the black and white portraits in a hall of the nursing home beside photos of residents taken during younger days. For many residents and their families, it was an opportunity to see their likenesses displayed and celebrated along with their personal histories.

“She did a beautiful job. That’s me alright,” said Rose Mucciarone, 102, who told The Breeze she had her hair done the morning of the portrait session to prepare.

Elizabeth Messere, a longtime North Smithfield resident, said she was unenthusiastic at first about having her photo taken, but was convinced by Wilcox’s persistence and was happy with the results.

“I think she really captured a lot of the people’s personalities,” she said.

While Paniccia said many of the residents were not accustomed to having their portrait taken, the project was such a success that St. Antoine’s has invited Wilcox to photograph all of the residents of the home in the upcoming months. Wilcox said she looks forward to accepting the invitation, as well as continuing her other volunteer projects in Pawtucket and around the state.

“I very much want to be more a part of the community, and I felt that photography was one way to do that,” she said.

Portraits displayed at St. Antoine Residence on Monday show residents Patricia Gosselin, left, and Terri Petrin. The photos were taken as part of a volunteer project by Pawtucket-based photographer and social worker Cynthia Wilcox.
Cynthia Wilcox stands beside her work at St. Antoine Residence. The Pawtucket-based photographer said the project was an opportunity to reach out to her community.
102-year-old Rose Mucciarone holds her portrait.