The Herald Bulletin

March 1, 2014

Looking 'Through Their Eyes'

Alexandria photographer starts project to tell elders' stories

By Kelly Dickey
The Herald Bulletin

---- — ANDERSON — Sitting in a vintage chair in an old sewing shop downtown Alexandria she’s converted to her photography studio, Lisa Hobbs talks about why her latest project consumes her.

“When people look at the elderly, they see somebody old, they’re not worth anything,” she said as tears welled in her eyes and she choked up. “When I look at them I see someone who brought us here today and I don’t care how many wrinkles they have. I think every part of them is beautiful.”

Hobbs has thought of taking pictures of retirement homes before, but she woke up one morning about a month ago with an idea that she knew she had to see into fruition.

Hobbs wants to photograph 10 elderly people, five men and five women, and pair their photo with a written story from their lives for her project “Through Their Eyes.” The framed pieces will then be displayed in an art show at Alexandria Care Center. If the pieces sell, all of the money will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The photographer has already had a test run. After conceiving the idea, she met with 92-year-old Wally VanErman last month over breakfast, where she asked him to tell her a story.

After throwing his hands up in the air to say he didn’t have story, Hobbs said, he started to tell his personal account of an iconic American tale: the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Originally deployed for a 72-hour operation, he ended up on a six-week mission, he told Hobbs. The men in the service called him Doc because he took care of them, and he did that during the battle even after he took a mortar to the knee. He put his kneecap back on and helped his men survive.

When Hobbs first started the project, she thought it was going to be easy and something nice for her participants and their families. While hearing VanErman’s story, though, she realized the emotions it would bring up.

“When I sat down with Wally and started talking to him, I had to get up in the middle of our interview and leave the room,” she said. “And I went to the bathroom and I started bawling because it was just so amazing to hear this man’s story, and it’s just one little story compared to all the other ones he’s lived.”

Hobbs said she cried for two days and she still tears up when she thinks about his story.

Darcy VanErman, Wally’s granddaughter-in-law, sat in on his interview with Hobbs. She heard parts of his story before, but said Wally had never opened up to someone like he did to Hobbs.

She said the photographer has a way of getting people to open up, as well as capturing their essence through the lens.

“I remember stopping and looking in when he was speaking to (Hobbs) and it was one of those spots in time I’ll honestly never forget,” she said. “She drew out of him a well that was so much deeper than you can imagine.”

That’s what Hobbs is hoping to invoke in her project, and the Alexandria Care Center wants to help.

Jared Smith, social services director, has 10 residents picked for the project.

But first, Hobbs had to raise money to fund the project.

She’s raised $950 so far thanks to contributions from businesses and private donors, but if she doesn’t get $1,300 she’ll have to pay for printing and easels out of pocket.

Since she just reached her minimum goal of $900, she was finally able to set up her first interviews at the retirement home for Monday. She hopes to have her gallery in late March or early April.

Smith said the Care Center is happy to be involved to get elderly people’s stories out there.

“The younger crowd… they have a different view,” he said. “…They have neat, great stories and a lot of them have lived through more than any (young people) could hope to experience.”

Hobbs said she wants families and young people to understand the tool they have in the elderly. Even if her name is attached to the project, she wants the focus to be on previous generations that can offer a rare perspective into history.

“I don’t want it to be about me,” she said. “I want it to be about the families, (and) I want it to be about the residents because they’re the ones with the stories, and once they’re gone, the stories are gone.”

To donate money to the “Through Their Eyes,” email Hobbs at, visit or

Like Kelly Dickey on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @KellyD_THB, or call 640-4805.