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Finding the meaning of home through photography

By Meghan McCarthy


When you think of the word home, what comes to your mind?  

Is it a place, person, a feeling?  

For Donna, home is the view outside her window, complete with white blooms and the light blue trim of her neighbor’s house. Home is her Christmas Village collection, which she meticulously arranges every season on her front porch. Home is black leather seat of her wheelchair.  

For me, home is the beach. It is the salty smell of the sea breeze grazing my face. It is the sun warming my body as I walk with family across the shore. Home is a feeling of serenity.  

For you, it home may be the comfort of your favorite leather chair. It may be the sweet scent of chocolate chip cookies in the oven. It may be the sound of laughter as you sit beside those you love most.  

Over eight weeks, caregivers and patients at Penn Memory Center (PMC) responded to prompts while attending the Personal Narratives Through Photography class. Led by Riana Gideon, the class centered community, photo-taking, and storytelling every Wednesday morning.  

Riana is a dual degree candidate in the School of Social Policy & Practice and the Weitzman School of Design (MSW/MFA) at Penn. 

I had the privilege of observing its last sessions.  

While I initially joined the class to gain information for a promotional write-up, I found much greater sentiment than just lessons about photography.  

During each session, Riana encouraged participants to respond to a theme through the medium of photography. Class members brought photographs from the past and made new photographs with their smartphones in between class sessions.  

“The design of the class focused on storytelling and smartphone photography,” said Riana. “The participants shared intimate stories and bonded with classmates through this transformative medium”. 

Whether photos captured childhood homes, natural hair, or cherished moments with loved ones, each and every photo was beautiful.  

Donna, whose work was shown earlier, always accompanied her images with familial stories. A weekly participant, her images showed her gratitude for beauty in daily life.  

Class prompts included “one last photo,” photographs of home, pictures of past and present, and “a day in my life,” to name a few.  

“Photographs have the power to transport you to another time in your life,” said Riana. 

The class allowed patients and caregivers alike to relive cherished memories and savor current experiences of meaning. 

Vulnerability was at the heart of each narrative. 

While on Zoom, classmates forged friendships and connection with one another. Whether talking about simple things like vacations and simple routines or serious topics such as identity and caregiving, each class was filled with kindness, laughter, and powerful emotion.  

It was a safe space for honest expression and discussion. 

“Over time, the dynamics of the group shifted as participants shared photographs and life stories.” said Riana. 

Beyond storytelling, Riana also taught important smartphone photography skills. Participants learned about composition, editing, and organization.  

Riana designed each session with the interests and needs of the group in mind. 

As the world around us continues to change and adapt to the pandemic, virtual formats can pose their own challenges. But the shared stories transcended screens. I felt the sentiment of each narrative. Regardless of how I felt before class, I left feeling more connected.  

For Wes, home is sitting beside his wife, Mary, while enjoying a slice of red velvet birthday cake. It is her illuminating smile. Home is his residence in Delaware, and the beauty of nature which surrounds it.  

“Photography is a form of mindfulness that allows for reflection, self-realization, and disclosure,” said Riana. 

As I sat and listened to the group’s different meanings of home, I found commonality amongst our varied experienced. Home is a place of nostalgia. It is a feeling of safety. It is a person of comfort. 

So, I ask you again: when you think of the word home, what comes to your mind?  

You can reflect on this question further by following a 5-minute guided meditation available on the PMC YouTube channel.

If you are interested in participating in programming at PMC, please visit the Programs & Services page to learn more.