Two years ago, Tony Luciani's mother Elia broke her hip. Soon thereafter, she was diagnosed with dementia — and found herself unable to live on her own.
"I brought her [into my home], and around that time, I had purchased a new camera," Tony said.
The camera would need to be tested, and Elia's presence in the house gave Tony — a visual artist who had planned to use the camera to photograph his paintings — something he had never before sought: a human subject.
"I said, 'OK mom, you're a good model. Stay still.'"
What started as an attempt to learn the camera's buttons and dials turned into a massive project, spanning 21 months and 93 photos — many inspired by Elia's fading memories.
"My mom would remember things that happened 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago," Tony said. "But she wouldn't remember things that happened five, 10 minutes ago. So in order to keep a conversation going, she would tell stories of what she knew."
Those stories became the basis for some of his photographs — playful, often haunting portraits that fuse Elia's past and current realities.
"I just thought it was a great way for me and her to connect while she was with me; otherwise, she'd just be sitting there and reading a magazine," he said.
"She was my caregiver as a kid, and now those roles have changed," Tony said.
At first, including his mother in the photography project was an attempt to help her feel productive, since Elia is no longer able to help with household tasks.
It quickly became clear that Elia was not only an evocative subject, but an eager and able collaborator.
"She's always been someone who participated and gave more than she received."
Elia was born in Italy in 1923, and was married at the age of 13.
"She was 16 when she had her first son," Tony said. "So that image for me was the story of her when she was a young girl, being a mother at that age."
After immigrating to Canada in 1955, Elia worked as a seamstress in garment factory in Toronto, overseeing and training new hires — often immigrants themselves. Doing so required learning their languages: Spanish, French, German, Korean.
These days, she spends twice a week in a program with other seniors, where she often finds herself helping those who can't read.
"She likes that, only because she becomes the teacher again," Tony said.
Despite her short-term memory loss, Elia remains physically active and enjoys getting out of the house when she can.
"She goes out and walks her route. She'll sit under a tree sometimes, or she'll sit on a park bench on her own," Tony said.
Tony's transition to full-time caretaker has been lonely at times, but he considers the loss of independence a worthwhile trade for what he's gotten in return.
"I'm doing more work, and I'm not at the beach. I'm at the studio and I'm creating and I'm doing photographs," he said. "And with her here as my model, it's every artist's dream to have a model that I can call — and there she is."
"She's become a real voice in my art," Tony said.
Beyond the art, Tony says that the project made him rethink his relationship with his mom.
"Here I thought, initially, I was going to be the brave guy and take her into my home, rather than shoving her into a nursing home or assisted living, and having my life disrupted and all that.
"But what I got out of it was more than I gave."