Memories of living life with Alzheimer’s: Kim Sun-ki captures his grandma’s final years in photographs

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Memories of living life with Alzheimer’s: Kim Sun-ki captures his grandma’s final years in photographs

테스트

[KIM SUN-KI]

“There are hardly any affectionate memories between me and my grandmother, whom I’ve only ever met for the holidays. But one day I had to live with her.”

This is how the photographer’s note for the photo exhibition “Hyosun Oh, My Grandmother,” currently being held at the Ryu Ga-heon Gallery in central Seoul.

Kim Sun-ki was in his mid-20s when his grandmother came to live with his family after his father, the eldest son, was given the responsibility to care for his mother in her 70s. Over time, Kim’s grandmother developed a hearing disability and, little by little, began to lose her memory and started to suffering from cognitive impairment. It was the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

To get closer to his sick grandmother, Kim decided to take photos of her to understand the strange disease that prevented her from recognizing her own family and even herself. That led to him photographing 15 years of his grandmother’s life.

Kim is currently a deputy director at the television network MBC. He has filmed numerous documentaries and drama series such as “Kang Chi, the Beginning” in 2013, “Angry Mom” in 2015 and “Tempted” and “Less than Evil” in 2018.

“I briefly worked as a freelance photographer before I joined the company,” Kim said. “Because I saw what a hard time my grandmother was going through alone, not being able to even hold a proper conversation with the rest of the family, I wanted to help her in some way, and my way was through taking photos. At the beginning of her Alzheimer’s, she didn’t recognize me at all and would say curse words whenever she saw the camera. If I gave her the printed photographs, she would rip them up on the spot. I worried whether I was actually tormenting her through the camera, but one day she just stopped caring.”

테스트

At top, photographer Kim Sun-ki’s grandmother Oh Hyo-sun sucking on her thumb while suffering from Alzheimer’s. In the middle, Oh cooks in the kitchen in the early stages of the disease. Above, Kim’s mother Lee Myeong-ja, right, stands in the bathroom after bathing her mother-in-law. [KIM SUN-KI]

The 32 black-and-white pictures of Oh all seem to feature a different person. When she first started to live with Kim’s family, she would cook in the kitchen, but as the disease took its toll, she spent more time blankly staring into space or packing her things to go out and then sitting at the stairs of the apartment without knowing where to go. She would also fall asleep in the sun-filled sofa during the day while staring at a black television screen. Eventually, she began sucking her thumb while she slept, like a baby.

“At the beginning of the disease, she would frequently take out all of the things in our drawers, or go out in the brief moments when our family wasn’t looking and have us looking for her all over the town, or cry all night long and keep us all up,” Kim reminisced.

There is one photograph in the exhibition that does not feature his grandmother. The photo is of a teddy bear with strange needlework across its face. After her husband’s death when she was 42 years old, Kim’s grandmother became the breadwinner of her house of six children through sewing. Even after she lost her memory, Oh would instinctively sew anything that she saw in sight.

There is one other person who shows up in the pictures, and that is Lee Myeong-ja - Kim’s mother and Oh’s daughter-in-law.

“My grandmother passed away on March 1 last year when she was 95 years old, and it was my mother who looked after her until the very end,” Kim said. “I sometimes resented my grandmother for giving my mother such a hard time, but she, on the other hand, took care of her old and sick mother-in-law without any complaints. It was as if she naturally accepted [Oh] as part of her life too.”

The very first visitor when the exhibition opened on March 31 was his mother.

테스트

From top: a teddy bear that Oh sewed after she lost her memory; a portrait of Oh; Oh’s hands, which show how hard she’s worked to support her six children alone. [KIM SUN-KI]

“She came with my father, aunt and uncle and I secretly was worried that she would cry. But after serenely looking at each photo, she left after saying that I did a good job.”

The photos of Oh all show a distinctive flower pattern. Her clothes, blanket and socks are all covered with flowers. Taken on different days, her clothes seem to remain the same, but that is because Lee always made sure that Oh wore things that she liked. There is also a photo of Lee looking worn out in the bathroom after washing her mother-in-law.

“How my mother covered my grandmother up in towels after the bath is like a mother taking care of her baby. She was no exception to my grandmother’s cursing at the beginning stages of the disease, but one day she said ‘thank you’ to my mother while she was feeding her.”

On the first page of the book of the photo collection, Kim writes, “I dedicate this book to my mother whom I respect.”

“As I witnessed how my mother took care of my grandmother even as she herself was growing old and sick, I always respected her sincerity,” Kim said. “To live with a sick family member is hard for the rest of the family. But as I look back I realized that it was part of my life. I wanted to share this familial love that I felt with others, which is why I chose to exhibit these photos on the first-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death.”

Out of 7,000 photos that he’s taken over the course of 15 years, the 32 pictures that he chose were based on serenity. He wanted to share with others the pain that his grandmother and mother felt, what it means to grow old, to be sick and to die, in a deep, yet composed, manner.

BY SEO JUNG-MIN [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]



치매 할머니가 인형 꿰맨 사연, 손자의 카메라는 안다

“어린 시절 명절에만 할머니를 만났던 내게 할머니와의 애틋한 추억은 한 손을 펴서 헤아려도 손가락 개수가 남을 만큼 별로 없었다. 그런 할머니와 갑자기 함께 살게 됐다.”

서울 종로구 청운동에 위치한 갤러리 ‘류가헌’에서 4월 12일까지 열리는 사진전 ‘나의 할머니, 오효순’의 작가 김선기(42)씨의 작가 노트는 이렇게 시작된다.

장남인 아버지가 칠순이 넘은 노모를 모시기로 하면서 이십 대 중반 청년의 삶에 갑자기 등장한 할머니. 그런데 할머니는 처음엔 귀가 안 들리시더니, 점점 기억과 인지능력을 잃어갔다. 치매에 걸린 ‘아픈 할머니’와 살게 된 손자는 할머니와 교감하기 위해, 난생처음 맞닥뜨린 낯선 병을 이해하기 위해 카메라를 들었다. 가족도 몰라보고, 자신조차 잃어버린 할머니의 삶을 조용히 기록한 세월이 어느덧 15년이나 흘렀다.

김선기씨의 현 직업은 MBC 영상미술국 차장이다. 추석 특집 ‘세상의 모든 부엌’ 등 다수의 다큐멘터리와 드라마 ‘구가의 서’ ‘앵그리맘’ ‘위대한 유혹자’ ‘나쁜 형사’ 등을 촬영했다.

“방송국 입사 전 잠시 프리랜서 사진가로 활동했죠. 그때 할머니와 같이 살게 되면서 가족들이랑 대화도 안 되고 혼자 힘든 시간을 보내는 할머니를 나만의 방법인 사진으로 지켜본 거죠. 치매 초기에는 손자인 저도 몰라보고 카메라만 보면 욕을 하셨어요. 흑백필름을 직접 인화해서 사진을 드리면 그 자리에서 찢어버리셨죠. 내가 카메라로 할머니를 괴롭히는 건 아닌가 고민도 많이 했는데, 어느 날부터 할머니가 카메라를 신경 쓰지 않게 되셨어요.”

갤러리에 걸린 32점의 흑백사진 속 할머니는 사진 한 장마다 전혀 다른 사람처럼 보인다. 처음 함께 살면서는 주방에서 요리도 하시더니, 점차 허공을 바라보는 때가 많아졌고, 무작정 가방을 들고 집을 나서서는 어디로 갈지 몰라 아파트 층계에 주저앉아 있는 일도 많아졌다. 햇볕 따사로운 창가 소파에서 멍하니 불 꺼진 TV만 바라보다 스르르 잠이 드는 모습이 잦아졌고, 결국 할머니는 엄지손가락을 입에 물고 자는 아기가 돼 버렸다.

“병 초기엔 수시로 집안 서랍을 다 빼내서 짐 정리를 하는 바람에 멀쩡하게 남아난 서랍이 없어요. 잠깐 한눈판 사이에 집을 나가 온 가족이 동네를 뒤지고 다닐 때도 잦았고, 밤새 울부짖을 때는 가족이 함께 뜬눈으로 밤을 샜죠.”

김선기씨의 사진 중 할머니의 모습이 안 담긴 사진이 하나 있다. 곰돌이 인형에 괴상한 바느질 자국이 잔뜩 있는 사진이다. 1924년 태어난 할머니는 마흔둘에 남편을 잃고 이후 삯바느질로 6남매의 생계를 꾸렸다고 한다. 기억을 잃은 상태에서도 할머니는 본능적으로 실을 바늘에 꿰어 손에 잡히는 것마다 닥치는 대로 바느질을 했다고 한다. 사진 속 클로즈업된 할머니의 손과 발은 말라비틀어진 나무판 같다.

그리고 할머니 사진 속에 등장하는 또 한 명의 인물. 바로 할머니의 며느리이자 김씨의 어머니 이명자(69)씨다.

“할머니가 지난해 3월 1일 아흔다섯에 돌아가셨는데, 마지막 순간까지 할머니 병 뒷바라지를 어머니가 혼자 해내셨어요. 고생하시는 어머니를 바라보며 할머니가 미울 때도 많았죠. 하지만 어머니는 한 번도 싫은 내색 없이 할머니와의 삶을 자신의 인생으로 받아들이신 것 같아요.”

3월 31일 오픈한 전시의 첫 관람객도 어머니였다고 한다.

“아버지, 이모, 이모부와 함께 전시장을 찾으셨는데 내심 걱정을 많이 했어요. 어머니가 우시면 어떡하나. 그런데 담담한 표정으로 사진들을 둘러보시더니 ‘수고했다’는 말만 남기고 가시더라고요.”

사진 속 할머니 사진들에는 유난히 꽃무늬가 많다. 옷도, 이불도, 덧버선도 온통 꽃무늬다. 다른 날 찍은 사진인데 언뜻 보면 똑같아 보이는 꽃무늬 옷들. 할머니가 평소 좋아했던 것들을 어머니가 늘 챙기신 것이다. 할머니를 씻기고 정작 기운이 다 빠진 사진 속 어머니는 목욕탕에서 젖은 옷과 맨발로 얼굴을 닦고 있다.

“목욕 끝낸 할머니가 추울까봐 이불로 돌돌 말아놓은 모습은 꼭 아기를 돌보는 엄마 같죠. 병이 시작된 초기에는 어머니에게 막 욕도 하시더니, 아무도 몰라보던 어느 날 밥을 떠 넣어주는 어머니에게 할머니가 ‘고맙다’고 하시더라고요.”

이번 전시를 기념해 출간한 사진집 첫 장에는 ‘이 책을 존경하는 어머니께 바칩니다’라고 적혀 있다.

“할머니와 함께 아프고 늙어 가는 어머니를 옆에서 지켜보며 어머니의 진심을 늘 존경했어요. 아픈 가족과 함께 산다는 건 그 시간을 진행형으로 겪는 가족에게 정말로 힘든 시간이니까요. 하지만 지나고 돌이켜보니 그것도 나의 일상이었구나! 깨달았죠. 제가 느낀 이 가족애를 조금이나마 사람들과 나누고 싶어서 할머니 1주기에 사진을 전시하게 됐습니다.”

김선기씨는 7000장의 사진 중 32점을 골랐던 기준은 ‘담담함’이라고 했다. 할머니와 어머니의 처절하게 고통스러웠던 순간 대신, 늙어간다는 것, 병에 걸린다는 것, 그리고 죽음을 맞는다는 것에 대해 담담하지만 깊게 대면할 수 있는 순간들을 관객이 마주하길 원했다고 한다. 오효순 할머니의 어떤 모습에서 눈시울이 뜨거워질지 그건 관객의 몫일 것이다.

서정민 기자

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