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North America
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Dementia, Aging, Alzheimer's, Memory
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Traces is a 360-video virtual reality experience that explores the memories—both real and imagined—of Willie E. White, an 88-year old woman living with dementia.
Gabriela Arp

2016 — student

About Gabriela Arp

Gabriela Arp is a producer, filmmaker and photographer who is passionate about visual media, new technology and immersive projects that strengthen the human connection. 

Gabriela has produced short films, exhibits and interactive experiences for news organizations, non-profits and commercial clients. Some of her clients include New York Times, Blue Chalk Media, CNN International, International Rescue Committee., American Red Cross, Sony, Canon, and JetBlue. 

She recently completed the interactive project Divided by the Sea with a team of researchers and journalists through a grant provided by the VIMY award. The project includes migration routes and a collection of multimedia stories about the Mediterranean refugee crisis and its impact on the small city of Reggio Calabria in Southern Italy. 

Her work has been recognized by the Alexia Foundation, College Photographer of the Year, Atlanta Photojournalism Conference, Vimeo, the Webby Awards, the Davey Awards, in addition to screened at film festivals across the country. She recently received a Master's in Visual Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Willie White holds a tattered, yellow photograph of a little girl posing for a school portrait. Her 88-year-old hands survey the photo’s creases and scotch-taped tears, and tremble just enough to notice. The young girl in the picture looks poised and confident. She wears a plaid jumper over an oxford shirt that I imagine was as crisp and white as the paper on which the photo was printed some fifty years ago. She has unmistakably kind eyes and smiles a certain hopeful gentleness, not unlike the expression on Willie’s face as she examines the photo. “Do you know who this is?” her daughter Phyllis asks. Willie glances at Phyllis with a feigned nostalgia, then returns her attention to the photo. She flexes the back of the photograph between her thumb and forefinger and peaks at the back, as if she is cheating on a pop quiz. No clue is scribbled there to guide her.

“That’s me,” says Phyllis, with a slightly less hopeful but all the same gentle smile. She masks any disappointment with the laughter earned from ten years of caring for her aging mother.

In 2006, Willie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Her fading memory is not limited to difficulties with yearbooks and family albums. She struggles to remember daily tasks like taking a bath, making a meal, and going to bed; the same tasks she was likely helping her daughter perfect at the time Phyllis’s school portrait was taken.

We continue to shuffle through the small stack of old family photos. Most of the pictures seem as unfamiliar to her as they do to me. Then she notices a photo of her father and mother. With no hesitation, she names them both. She tells me how her father was a farmer who picked cotton in the fields near their home outside of Mason, Tennessee. She describes how the only thing her mother loved more than her chickens and her children was going to church. Memories fade in out with these sporadic specifics alongside well-rehearsed filler. She recounts her time as a young girl attending services at Williamson Church, describing the “nice looking church and good people” one moment and her white dress she wore on Sunday mornings the next. She describes her husband as “a man with nice ways” and then recalls the direction the choir faced during services. She recounts her childhood, the open country where she grew up, and Sunday afternoons as “good times.”

Then, as if coaxed by organ music, Willie sings the first line of the hymn “Blessed Assurance” with such fluidity and clarity that both Phyllis and I are taken aback. She stammers for a moment, and looks up for help with the next line. Without pause, Phyllis joins her, offering her the clue that was missing from the back of the tattered photograph.

Their voices swirl together in the strange and wonderful harmony of a mother who knows her daughter so well, even when she can’t remember it.

Memory is not static. It changes as we gain new experiences and form new relationships; it changes as our brain chemistry and networks alter, and as we grow older.

For my project, “Traces,” I aim to show what remains of memory for someone living with dementia by creating an immersive environment using 360-video technology. The goal of the project is not to develop perfect replicas of past experiences, but rather to use rich, visual metaphors to transport the viewer to specific places of Willie’s memory—real or imagined—and to challenge our stereotypes about the relationship between memory and identity.

The 360-video VR experience will be a “hybrid” documentary, where documentary audio interviews with Willie will form the narrative script and fictional re-enactment scenes of memory will form the visuals.

By focusing on what remains of memory,  I hope to contribute towards a societal shift towards acceptance and inclusion of people affected by dementia, who are often isolated and stigmatized for their memory loss. For aren’t the memories that have endured the unforgiving trail of disease, the most beautiful ones

As of submission, I have completed the audio interviews and VR storyboard, as well as developed a partnership with Duke Family Support Center.

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Willie E. White, 88, poses for a portrait at her daughter's home in Durham, North Carolina. Ten years ago, Willie was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and has been steadily losing her memory and the ability to perform tasks like making breakfast, taking a shower, and brushing her teeth. Gabriela Arp
A photograph of Willie in her sixties before being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Gabriela Arp
Willie presses on her finger when trying to remember the type of cake her mother used to make during our interview. Gabriela Arp
Old photographs of Willie's children and her time working at the hospital are strewn on the coffee table next to a pair of Willie's reading glasses. Willie was unable to recognize any of the people or places in these images during our interview. Gabriela Arp
A tattered school portrait of Willie's daughter, Phyllis Wyrick. Willie now lives on the ground floor of her daughter's home. In conversation, Willie moves between thinking Phyllis is her daughter or her younger sister. Gabriela Arp
Willie holds a photograph of her mother and father holding her cousin. She recognized and named her mother and father right away when she saw this photograph. Gabriela Arp