Behold

Using Photography to Connect With an Ailing Father

Elijah was the youngest of my father’s 17 grandchildren. Earlier this year my older brother’s wife gave birth to my dad’s 18th grandchild.

Michael M. Santiago

While studying at the San Francisco Institute of Art, Michael Santiago would return to his parents’ home 2,000 miles away and snap some photographs of his family. He said at the time he wasn’t taking the photos seriously, but when he accidentally sent some of them to a professor, she encouraged him to go deeper into the work.

Santiago’s father had health issues, including prostate cancer and kidney failure, that required three days of weekly dialysis. Santiago shadowed his father during medical procedures and when he was resting at home or hanging out with friends and family. Santiago said taking these photographs was a way for him to reconnect with his father.

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“It was a way for me to try to understand what he was going through,” Santiago said.

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Although Santiago said he felt as if he and his father were reconnecting, there were times when reality became complicated, such as when the family learned his father’s cancer had spread to his lungs. “I used my camera as a shield to not let the news hit me so much,” he said.

My father, Zoilo, was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998. He is now going through his third bout with the disease, which has also spread to his lungs. His kidneys, shortly after his last diagnosis, went into failure, which forced him to have three days of dialysis a week. Through all of this, he remains optimistic that he will be around for years to come.

Michael M. Santiago

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Every so often my father’s hands would be swollen, and we didn’t know what was causing it to happen. Checking his hands and feet for swelling has now become a normal routine, as it is a common symptom of his illness.

Michael M. Santiago

My brother Julio visits my parents every chance he gets. Because of his hectic work schedule, he often comes over tired and naps while he is there.

Michael M. Santiago

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Because of his inability to stand or walk for long periods of time, my father spends most of his time indoors. During the summer, my mother, Luz, would try to take him out at least once a week to get fresh air. Dialysis often leaves him weak, so this would only happen whenever he felt strong enough to do so.

Michael M. Santiago

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Santiago’s father proved to be a willing subject throughout the series, only sometimes telling Santiago not to take a photograph, “usually when he was falling asleep.”

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As he has worked on the series, titled “A Promise,” Santiago said he has learned to be more patient when shooting, to take his time to get the shots he wants. He said the title is symbolic of when the family found out his father’s cancer had spread, which coincided with his sister dying of cancer.

“At the week of her funeral, he was telling me that before he was no longer around, that he would like to see me go back to school and graduate from college,” Santiago said. “And I promised that I would.”

This was one of the last times that I remember my father playing dominoes. It was always something everyone liked to do. He got so into it, which made it that much more enjoyable. One time, my mother and him were partners at a party. They lost the game, and he didn’t take it to well. He was so mad that he left her stranded there.

Michael M. Santiago

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When the bathroom chair was bought to help my father bathe, he refused to use it. I myself was surprised when I first saw it. It was then that I began to realize how quickly his health was declining.

Michael M. Santiago

Santiago said he stopped taking photos a year ago as his father’s health continued to decline. He said his father “wasn’t present with him. I was just there with a camera taking photos of him.”

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Santiago shares the photos he does have with family who aren’t living close to his father.

“A lot of the images are of my dad and my nieces,” he said. “They’re really happy with it. … They don’t see my father as much as they would like to, and when they see the images, they say, ‘Good, we’re still connected to him.’ ”

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When I returned home after my first year away at school in California, that’s when I first noticed how drained dialysis would leave my father. He would come home and sleep more often than usual.

Michael M. Santiago

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When we moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, my mother became a preschool teacher. She then moved on to become a home health aid. And even after being semiretired, she still finds herself doing the same jobs taking care of my father and nieces and nephews. At this point in her life, she’s practically working 24 hours. But she loves her grandchildren and has them at every opportunity that she gets, no matter how tired she is.

Michael M. Santiago

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