This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2019 show Dignified featuring the photographic works of Patterson Lawson.
There has never been a better time than now to consider the totality of a human life, or to consider well the first to last day of any person. Embedded between the universal bookends of birth and death, we will find people who dream and desire, who obtain goals and fall short, who hunger for equality and meaningful lives, and who long to have their voices heard loud and clear. Humans collectively have always built culture, created societies in which to dwell and flourish, and together have experienced more than any other kind of living organism that has ever existed.
That being said, a long debated question emerges: What if, for one reason or another, a person is no longer capable of expressing oneself powerfully, usefully, effectively, or even at all? What if you or I come to a state of being that is devoid of what society sees as meaningful contribution? Is human dignity, value and self-worth lost?
We must pause to consider if human worth, dignity and value is wholly contingent upon the actions of an individual alone. My personal considerations have led me to think that human dignity is real and true. In their most essential state, humans are valuable and therefore worthy of respect. It must be communicated and expressed often because a culture that flourishes to the benefit of all depends on the recognition and acceptance of this fact at the level of collective consciousness.
Conversely, when we act in manners towards each other that exhibit a denial or anything less than espousing a belief in intrinsic human dignity, we harm, dehumanize and divide because there is no unwavering fundamental reason for mutuality or community. And yet, for many this fundamental fact is unclear, ignored and/or denied making the fight to communicate the dignity and value of persons worth a continuous effort. If you are tempted to doubt my point, we only need to look to the past; human history is replete with examples to support this claim.
The benefit of all or the common good of all includes those that can “do” and those that cannot. It is important to both preserve this truth and make space to display this deep reality. To this end, I put forward that art plays a powerful role in keeping human dignity and worth at the forefront of our considerations and reflections.
This exhibition by Patterson Lawson aptly titled Dignified is a declaration of sorts, imploring all to look deeply and think carefully about the images of real people set before us. Each large-scale, high-definition photograph of a person living with Alzheimer’s disease deftly communicates an intrinsic dignity that is not lost due to the devastating effects of the disease on the body, soul and mind. Even though much is lost, dignity persists at the core. Moreover, this focused project dually raises awareness about the rise of Alzheimer’s and how we all might in one way or another suffer its effects, a truth felt most deeply by those directly impacted by this disease.
Patterson Lawson’s passionate focus and dedication to such a large-scaled project brings anyone who takes the time to see it closely into the images, words and lives of thirty individuals living with Alzheimer’s. The care he has for each subject is mirrored in the mastery of each photograph.
I am honored to curate this timely exhibition that showcases the important role artists and makers can have in the making of culture, caring for society and representing those that are often lost and marginalized. Shockoe Artspace is also proud to host the first major solo exhibition of this great emerging artist, Patterson Lawson, and to partner with the Alzheimer’s Association, which marks a milestone in the mission of the gallery. Our current work together signals a spark of hope for a future working together to support what ought to matter more to us all.
In closing, I invite you to take time to sit with these images both in this incredible book and in this incredible exhibition. Be brought close to and personally into the deep truth we all know but often forget: that regardless of change, humans of all kinds are deeply and enduringly valuable in an unshakable way, and art has the power to shout this fact in the most resounding of manners.