Helga now rests in peace at 'Heiliger See' (Engl: Holy Lake). I released her ashes into the wind there because it was Helga's favorite place in her birth town, Potsdam, as a young woman. Potsdam, GERMANY, August 25, 2016.

Nadja Wohlleben

92 – Helga’s Disappearance

My grandmother, Helga von Randow, was 92 years old when she was diagnosed with dementia. Shortly afterwards, she was admitted into a closed medical facility as her disease had deteriorated. Five months later, Helga passed away.

Over the course of these five months, I visited Helga often, spending quality time with her and documenting her daily life. I am grateful that I got to share so much time with my gran during her final weeks, doing all the things she loved most: playing card- and dice games, listening to her favorite singer Udo Jürgens, taking her out for walks in the park and having iced coffee in an Italian cafe. As time progressed, the dreadful effects of Helga’s illness, not only on herself but the rest of the family became apparent: My mom, Nicoletta, and I were trying hard to cope with the situation, feeling incredibly powerless and paralyzed.

Holding onto my camera gave me the strength and a certain distance to face the tragic reality of her horrible disease. The moment I put my camera aside, the pain would hit me with force: There was nothing I could do to help Helga. All I could do was to be by her side, hold her hand, and helplessly watch her once so witty spirit disappear and her body wither away.

When Helga passed away in October 2015 I was heartbroken, yet I also felt relief. Relieved because she didn’t have to suffer any longer. Relieved because she still recognized Nicoletta and I until the end. I was smiling through my tears, because I knew that she was resting in peace, freed from this awful disease.

This body of work is a tribute to my grandmother, whose grace and courage never seized to amaze and inspire me.

This essay was Shortlisted for the EPF 2016





Nadja Wohlleben is a German documentary photographer and cultural anthropologist. A careful play of documentation and artistry, Nadja’s work focuses on concepts of femininity, power and identity. Portraying people from diverse cultural backgrounds, she documents their stories through her imagery in an authentic, intimate and aesthetic style. With a keen eye for detail, Nadja’s photography brings humanity to the foreground. Nadja holds an MA in Photojournalism from University of Westminster in London. Her work gained international recognition through photo contests such as the International Photography Awards, FotoVisura Photography Grant, or Moskow International Foto Awards.

Wohlleben is based in Berlin.


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Nadja Wohlleben

7 thoughts on “Nadja Wohlleben – 92 – Helga’s Disappearance”

  1. A very poignant essay, but also very powerful. The loss of family is so keenly felt, and we all experience it at some time in our lives. Thank you Nadja; a difficult time sensitively documented.


  2. Exceptional. And quite amazing how the beauty in the old black and white portraits still radiates through the aged faced and dementia-riddled mind of the elderly woman in her nineties.

  3. Nadia…
    What a powerful essay and so beautifully created. Makes me wish my grandparents were still around, I was very close to them. If I could I would jump on my bike and go and visit them, I’ve got so many things to tell them about. As grandparents go mine were exceptional human beings and I get the impression from the photos you felt the same about your’s.

  4. Since there’s such emotional connection, this must be a difficult thing to do. Having witnessed the experience myself, there’s some privacy issues at play. The good thing is that this may help others prepare for similar events. Those final moments of a loved one will stay with us and hopefully make us better people. Nice work, Nadia.

  5. Dear all,

    thank you so much for your comments!

    hharry: Thank you. The image in question is very meaningful to me as it was the moment that I released Helga’s ashes and found closure.

    Mike R & Paul & skiwaves: Thank you. It means so much to me to know that you can relate and feel the deep connection that I had to Helga through my photographs.

    Frostfrog: Yes, she was an exceptionally beautiful woman even during her last days.

    Again, thank you all so much! And thanks to BURN for featuring my essay!

    Best wishes,

  6. Nadja, thank you for sharing this moving photo and narrative tribute to your grandmother. My mother, who also suffered from dementia, recently passed at age 87. I can personally relate to your family’s struggles and the ever-present feeling of helplessness. But, as you point out, remarkable grace and courage endure, giving testament to the strength of the human spirit.

    I think your work speaks to a greater purpose, too. Raising public awareness about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is so important. May your remarkable and fond memories of Helga lift you in the days and years to come.

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