Portraits of the elderly is Cook’s Legacy Project

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The Legacy Project began with a question Sunnie Cook asked her aging father, “What legacy do you want to leave?”

Cook’s elderly father had sustained injuries after a fall and had to be hospitalized. Living over eight hours away from him, Cook wasn’t able to spend the time she wanted to with her dad while he was admitted. She realized how many unanswered questions she had about his life, who he used to be, and how he wanted others to remember him when he was gone. 

Life is fleeting and it’s easy to get caught up in the everyday busy-ness, often taking for granted that there will be another day with loved ones. Cook didn’t want to waste more time. She wanted to capture the moments she had left with her dad. When visiting with him, she heard stories she hadn’t heard before and began recording them. 

As a child, family and event photographer, her mind naturally gravitated toward photographing her dad every chance she got. 

When he was placed in a nursing facility, her passion for photographing the elderly in nursing facilities was ignited. She saw so many people existing, only shells of who they used to be, and she knew there was still life, love, advice and stories behind their eyes.

Cook began going into local nursing homes and visiting with the residents. She started asking them questions and taking photos of them. As she did, she saw them come alive. 

She had the idea to take “senior portraits” of the residential elderly, an area of photography that is often forgotten. She established a day and a time to set up her equipment. 

With a sitting fee of $25 to cover the costs, residents who participated were given an 8x10 copy of their photo. 

She brought in props and accessories, and the women felt beautiful as they got dressed up for their portraits. 

At the first event, there were some residents who couldn’t afford the sitting fee. Another resident’s family paid for their sitting fee so they could participate. She took about 10 portraits on that first day.

Months later, she went to another nursing home where she did 26 portraits. A lot of the residents there don’t get regular visitors. Some don’t even have family and are just wards of the state. For those, Cook didn’t charge a sitting fee, and gave away what she could afford.

Word of her project began to spread and she started getting donations of accessories and photo props. A few people have sponsored photo shoots for elderly residents to have the experience.

“The experience is for the residents; the photos are for the family,” says Cook, “Pictures are so important because that’s all you have when the people are gone.”

At Mineola Heights Healthcare, Cook helped create a wall of honor by taking portraits of the residential veterans. It was unveiled on Memorial Day and gives the residents a sense of belonging and pride.

In September, she helped put together a “senior prom” at Mineola Heights Healthcare where she took portraits.

“Anytime the seniors are getting all dressed up, they feel young and alive. The residents danced and had a great time,” said Sunni.

She plans to do more senior proms, take more portraits and get them talking about the legacy they want to leave.

Eventually, she hopes to publish a book compiled of the images and stories she has gathered, and start a movement of capturing the character of senior citizens through photography.

To recommend a senior citizen with a captivating story, to get senior photos taken of a loved one, or to sponsor the portraits for someone in a nursing facility, contact Sunnie Cook at 903-833-4367 or sunniedawnphotography@gmail.com.

Follow the legacy project at www.facebook.com/sunniedawnphotography.

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