Isa Leshko made a conscious decision not to photograph her family after her elderly mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but she knew that it was only a matter of time before the poignant experience would manifest itself in her work.
One year later, it happened. While visiting a friend at her ranch, Leshko met Petie, a decrepit old farm horse with a will to live despite his ebbing physical strength. Inspired by that encounter and wielding a crisp Hasselblad medium format camera, Leshko set out to photograph as many aging animals as she could, a venture that culminated into her arresting “Elderly Animals” project.
In this video, Leshko presents some of her best images from the project and describes the profound motivation behind her work:
Leshko has worked hard to ensure that her photographs provide “unflinching detail” to escape every vestige of sentimentality and encourage viewers to confront their own mortalities just as her mother’s diagnosis required Leshko to face her own fears of aging and dementia.
“I have come to realize that these images are self-portraits, or at the very least, they are manifestations of my fears and hopes about what I will be like when I am old,” Leshko said. “I think these images are testaments to survival and endurance and finding meaning and joy in life, in the face of physical limitations and challenges.”
Equally important is Leshko’s goal to inspire empathy toward animals through the photographs. By providing compassionate and dignified portraits of each animal, Leshko invites viewers to question current attitudes toward animals and whether the resulting treatment reflects each one’s worth.
Leshko, for one, believes that animals are immeasurably worthy of respect—and this is precisely why her images are so intimate and striking.
In order to understand how best to communicate each animal’s beauty and dignity, Leshko usually spends several hours with each animal, often lying beside it for an entire hour before even thinking of picking up her camera. This process allows the animal to acclimate to her presence, certainly, but it also allows Leshko to learn who the animal is.
Primarily, Leshko photographed her subjects at animal sanctuaries, but several of the subjects depicted in her portfolio were beloved family pets.
“The caregivers have found a lot of comfort in the images, particularly after their animals have passed,” Leshko said. “That there is an image that they feel has really shown who their animal was.”
Leshko is a fine art photographer based in Philadelphia, PA. Her photography, including her “Elderly Animals” body of work, has been displayed in museums and galleries all over the U.S., as well as in printed publications such as The Atlantic, The New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine.
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