Photographer helps families document loved ones

"I love all aspects of photography, but I am very partial to portraiture. I just like faces. I like the challenge of it. I sort of know how to deal with people and because of that I know how to get patients relaxed and get some really great shots," Les Wilkes said.

Wilkes, a 71-year-old nontraditional student at Armstrong, is one of the primary contributors to a family photography program at Hospice Savannah — a program roughly four years in the making with a goal of providing hospice patients and their loved ones with professionally processed portraits.

"A lot of families don’t really have decent portraits of their loved ones. Many of them have two or three  4 by 6 snapshots that are overexposed or shot into the sun — for whatever reason they’re terrible," he said. "We give them some really high quality images.”

Of the other nine hospice programs in Savannah, Hospice Savannah is the only nonprofit offering this kind of family portraiture.

Wilkes’ friend of 35 years and fellow nontraditional student Diane Booker originally started the program. Through a film photography class the two had together Wilkes learned about the program and got involved. Not long after, Booker began feeling overwhelmed by the work and Wilkes took a more active role. The portraits aren’t mandatory for hospice patients, they are offered as an option for them to consider.  

"We go out and spend a half day with the patients, and we get to know the family and the people, the children, everyone. We shoot a bunch of digital images and sometimes film images, and we give them back four to six nice 8 by 10 portraits and a CD with about 20 nice images we have edited," Wilkes said.

The outing is organized through the volunteer coordinator Christy Smoke, who also assists Wilkes with the photo shoot.

"We are like partners in crime. It’s good," Smoke said. "With both of us together we get to meet the families and experience a different side. This program is wonderful because you get the opportunity to bring families together, but it’s a happy moment and something they can hold onto.”

Wilkes and Booker both come from backgrounds in the medical field —Wilkes a now partially retired surgeon and Booker a nurse — and Wilkes attributes those backgrounds to their ability to handle the work emotionally.

"My wife won’t even look at the pictures. There are some people who just can’t deal with it," Wilkes said. "We’ve been around a lot of death and dying and we understand it. It’s a natural process. Sometimes it doesn’t come at the right time, but it is a natural process.”

The work isn’t easy to handle though. Wilkes said he never really gets used to it, particularly not when it comes to younger people.

"We’ve had several children that have really been an emotional struggle for me," he said. "Cases like that really do get to you not matter how experienced you are. You know someone late in their life, they’re supposed to die,  but someone who’s an 11-year-old shouldn’t be dying.”

Aside from the family portraits Wilkes has also started taking on a veterans program, which is also offered through Hospice Savannah. The arrangement is similar to the family portraits, but the goal is to honor veterans for their service in addition to providing them with high quality photos.

"These are real combat veterans. We go out and take a member of the armed service with us. So, if they are an Army veteran, we take a member of the Army, if they a Marine Corps veteran, we take someone from the Marines," Wilkes said.

The veterans are presented with a plaque to thank them for their services, and then Wilkes begins the photo shoot.

"These gentlemen don’t talk much about what they’ve done until they get close to death," he said. "They just keep it inside, but when they get close to the end they start to open up. They want to tell people about it.”

Over the years the volume of photo shoots has increased tremendously, and the response from the community has been extremely positive.

"We haven’t had a single negative thing said, and we’ve gotten all kinds of letters from people saying how important it is to them," he said. "Their loved one passed away, and now they have these wonderful portraits of them.”

On Oct. 15 an exhibition opened at the Hospice House on Eisenhower Drive displaying some of the photos Wilkes and Booker have taken over the last year. These pieces aren’t for sale. Wilkes said they are just for people to see. The exhibit is free and open to the public, and the reception is on Oct. 30 at 3 p.m.

"What Diane and Wes are doing with Hospice Savannah is tremendous and worthwhile. They are very special people to be able to do that. I wouldn’t be able to deal with it emotionally," said photography professor Linda Jensen.

While Wilkes said he is happy about the reaction from the community, he said the real pleasure comes from working with the families.

"It has been a privilege and an honor to shoot these people and to know them," Wilkes said. "At my age and with my experiences I already realize that life is fleeting and you need to get the most out of it everyday. My hospice work just reinforced that. I try to live everyday for what it’s worth.”

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