THOUGH Les Wilkes worked as an orthopedic surgeon for forty years, his passion for photography came first.
“I’ve been interested in photography since eighth grade—long before anything orthopedic,” says Wilkes. “I had a science teacher who was also a part-time photographer, and he took an interest in me and took me into the dark room.”
After retiring from his career, Wilkes picked up photography again, this time as a volunteer for Hospice Savannah. This Sunday, viewers can see the fruits of Wilkes’ labor of love. “Photography at Hospice Savannah: A Ten Year Retrospective” is a collection of 85 photographs, culled from over 12,500, that highlight Wilkes’ work with the organization.
Instead of displaying the photographs in a traditional style, Logan and Wilkes prepared a slideshow with a monitor donated by Stage Front Production Services.
Wilkes explains that when a patient comes into hospice care at Hospice Savannah, they’re offered the option to be photographed.
“The purpose is, we do family photography, like portraits of families, and we do a thing called We Honor Veterans,” explains Wilkes.”
We Honor Veterans is a special initiative by the National Hospice and Palliative Care which seeks to recognize and celebrate our veterans. Members of the armed forces show up in uniform to visit with veterans.
“We talk to them about their service, what they did, where they served,” Wilkes says.
“That’s extremely meaningful, I think, because so many of [the veterans] have never been thanked, or even talked about it,” adds Beth Logan, director of marketing and volunteer services at Hospice Savannah. “They repress it—they don’t want to burden their families with it, and then, of course, the Vietnam-era vets were never thanked.”
Wilkes and Logan share stories of veterans who were photographed—a Navy vet who was aboard the U.S.S. Missouri when Japan surrendered in World War II, a woman who was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed, an MP who pulled over the woman who would become his wife a month later.
“The stories these guys have,” sighs Logan.
Each Hospice patient’s story is recorded carefully by Wilkes and his assistant Kristy.
“Each picture on the wall has a little explanation, and that’s what I think is so nice about this show,” muses Logan.
“Every picture has a story. We have a story keeper because we believe it’s really important to honor a person’s story because they think, ‘Oh, I’m not important, I didn’t have an exciting life.’ You have a story to tell. Kristy and Les can just tell you a story on every single one.”
However, Logan wasn’t always set on having a photographer for the patients.
“Diane Booker started the program, and her sister died here,” Logan recalls. “I remember sitting down with her and she said to me she was taking photography classes at Armstrong. She said, ‘I really want to take pictures of patients,’ and my initial reaction was, ‘Oh God, I don’t know. No.’ Because they’re dying! But since I’ve been in Hospice so long, I knew it was important. I told her, ‘I really want to do this, but I’ve just been waiting for the right person.’”
Booker was the right person, and now Wilkes is the right person, too.
“Les is a loving and humble man, and when he goes in, so many of the patients’ families know him,” Logan lauds. “You couldn’t just get a photographer off the street.”
Wilkes understands how important preserving the patients’ memories is.
“It’s really important because once that person is gone, those are lasting memories forever,” Wilkes says. “It’s one of the most challenging things you can think of from a technical standpoint. Emotionally, it’s challenging, especially with children. But from a technical standpoint, it’s very hard because you walk into a person’s home—most of them are at home. It’s not like at a photography studio, where you have light and a backdrop. This is totally different. You walk in blind, but I like that challenge. You never know what you’re going to see. You have a person in bed who can’t get out of bed.”
“And you never know how sick they’re going to be,” says Logan.
Logan and Wilkes both admit that working in hospice care can be challenging, but worth it.
“We tell people we work at Hospice and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’” Logan laughs. “I’ve been here twenty years and the thing is, it’s an honor and a privilege.”
“I feel like after all these years, I finally found something I really like to do,” Wilkes enthuses. “I’ve always liked portrait photography, but as an amateur photographer, you don’t get to take many portraits. I like faces. I like to see the faces.”