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Photo project, inspired by seniors, preserves family history

These portraits are meant to be framed and shared for generations.

Local photographer who has shot over 120 portraits of older adults in the Longmont area hopes other photographers around the world will be motivated to do the same thing and capture history through this media.

"No one has asked me for a portrait for 50 years,” is what Kenneth Wajda, a 35-year professional photographer based in Longmont, has heard several times from seniors he photographed over the past five years, he said.

“I have photographs of my grandparents and great-grandparents in my home which is only possible because someone made them and printed them, framed them and kept them all these years,” stated Wajda on his website, but many older people, say they haven’t had their photo taken in years, he said. 

In 2015, Wajda began The Wise Photo Project, an initiative inspired by a photograph of his great-grandparents on his wall. The goal of this project, he said, is to create portraits of seniors that would otherwise not exist.

Before, people often would grab photos or photo albums when there was a fire or flood at home, but in this day and age people don’t really have photo albums anymore, they have photo files stored on their devices. “If you have a photo of your grandmother on your computer from two generations ago that doesn’t boot anymore, do you really have a photo of your grandmother,” he asked. 

Gone are the days of shoeboxes full of photos and memories now that photos are a digital rather than physical commodity.

“I can’t find photos from 10 years ago,” he said, adding if he can’t find old photos of his own chances are slim that someone not tech-savvy will be able to find theirs or that their grandchildren will even know they exist.

Wajda is a former newspaper photographer who said his “world has always been storytelling.”

Photographs appeal to him because of their meaning and their emotional impact. “Even when I’m not working I’m still working. I take a camera everywhere,” he said. 

On Jan. 17 this project work took Wajda to Margaret Caldwell’s family farm in Longmont to photograph her for her 99th birthday. 

A Longmont native, Caldwell is part of a long lineage of local farmers and has not moved more than 15 miles since her birth in 1922, according to her caregiver Diane Boyle. 

“She has a long history of being here and knows so many people … She remembers having a bunch of people in the harvest almost 24 hours a day and a truck wagon with cooking supplies to feed everyone in the field,” Boyle said. “It’s hard to find someone who has such a history you can talk to.”

Snippets of this history are what Wajda captured in a series of black and white and color photographs that framed Caldwell’s excitement on a “picture perfect” Monday, Boyle said. 

“She was so animated and so up,” Boyle said. “(Wajda) used machines to frame her and took pictures of the barn … she was so happy to show us around and tell me all about what it was growing up there.”

Boyle said Caldwell kept repeating how wonderful the experience had been, visiting and taking photos around a farm she had not spent time in for over 30 years. “She was happy to share her history and that of her family, and be a part of the project.”

The last portrait Caldwell remembers taking was one with her family a “long, long time ago,” and this was simply the “perfect gift and legacy for the people and families who want to share their stories,” Boyle said. 

Two of Caldwell’s portraits hang in her home facing a window where she can sit and look at them in the light of day, a third one was framed and gifted to her family for Christmas, something she “wanted to do for them and make it a surprise,” Boyle said. 

Wajda photographed nearly 80 individuals at the Longmont Senior Center in 2018 and over 45 others in his Longmont studio over the years.

He’s captured celebrities,  presidents and vice presidents, and said all of that work feels important and prestigious, but pales in comparison to The Wise Photo Project. “These photos will last a bit longer,” he said, adding it is probably the most important work he’s ever done. 

“If I could only do that work, that would be the ultimate photography project,” he said. “These are photographs that will have much more lasting value than a CEO portrait for an annual report or photographs for marketing … these are real family history.”

His portraits, shot on film, are meant for frames — intended to be preserved for generations — not for sharing on social media or scrolling on smartphones or tablets. 

With his commercial and commissioned photography work paying the bills, the photographs Wajda takes for The Wise Photo Project are free of charge and framed and gifted to individuals portrayed or their families, he said, adding seniors’ portraits and photographs hang in-home galleries around the country.

Wajda has opened the project up by inviting other photographers around the world to engage in similar work to make and gift framed photographs to their local seniors and recently added a Denver-based photographer. 

These portraits will be gifts to future generations, stated Wajda in a LinkedIn article inviting photographers worldwide to join him in his mission. “They will have a quality portrait of their ancestor because I created it,” he stated. “They may not know me, but they will have their portrait to have some sense of who they were, what they looked like."

Julie Baxter contributed to this story.

Correction: To Kenneth Wajda's name

Silvia Romero Solís

About the Author: Silvia Romero Solís

Después de viajar por el mundo, Silvia llegó a establecerse en Longmont. Ella busca usar su experiencia en comunicaciones y cultura para crear más equidad y diversidad en las noticias de Longmont.
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