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CREDIT: Ruth Toda-Nation

Love is a Life Story: Friendship in the Face of Covid

During the pandemic, Ruth Toda-Nation captured the friendship between her father, John, and his neighbour, Mary. The resulting work won an RPS Documentary Project Award and is part of an exhibition starting in May 2024.

The award-winning project | Exhibition dates

Friends are the family we choose. 

I’ve always been interested in people — all people — and the amazing ability humans have to find an inner strength to overcome adversity and turn it into something inspirational. 

In my work, I document the external world to find meaning and understanding for my internal, unresolved feelings, often bringing the past into the present. It is this liminal space, or borderland, that sparks my creativity. In reflecting on this inner landscape, a personal narrative is created which is located within a larger, shared experience focusing on the juxtapositions of birth and death, youth and age, pain and joy.

It was against this backdrop that I began documenting my father four and a half years ago when his health deteriorated, and I became his carer. If I’m honest, I struggle: just as there is no one manual on how to be a parent, there is even less available information on how to be a carer to a parent. I hadn’t appreciated just how hard growing old alone could be, and I needed to find a way to process my feelings.  


Love is a Life Story by Ruth Toda-Nation
I saw my father come back when he visited Mary. He had spent his life visiting the sick and praying with them. I realised how important it is to care for others even when we are struggling ourselves. © Ruth Toda-Nation


I had put my cameras away in the back of my cupboard for 20 years, along with deferred hopes and desires. Secretly, I pulled them out to look at them longingly on days when I felt I’d lost my identity to the demands of parenting, caring, making a living, and putting my photographic career on hold.

I started the work with my father for a few reasons: as a way to share with others who may be experiencing similar difficulties as carers; to explore my emotions and support my mental health; and to reignite my photographic practice. And if nothing else, I felt that my father and I could have fun making pictures on our visits to the Turkish barbers, the cafe on the high street, and on our car trips.

The challenges of Covid

But all this came to an abrupt end with the start of Covid-19 and the government instruction on 16th March 2020 that people over age 70 were to shield.

Suddenly isolation had come to us all. I used my daily exercise quota to cycle the five kilometres to my father’s facility in Milton Keynes where we initially met in the garden. This was the starting point for two photographic projects. The first, Our Lockdown Garden, is a series of distanced portraits and interviews made in collaboration with the residents at my father’s sheltered retirement community. The work memorialises their thoughts as the last generation to experience both the war and Covid 19.

The second project, Love is a Life Story, is a series of black and white photographs taken between March 2020 and May 2022. It is a highly personal project that documents the friendship between two nonagenarians, my father John, and his friend and neighbour, Mary. It intimately chronicles the everyday life and challenges they faced as they navigated the various, often confused, Covid-19 lockdown regulations whilst living in their retirement facility.  


Love is a Life Story by Ruth Toda-Nation
Mary often said: “I don’t know what it’s all going to be, but I know it’s going to be something, something important.” I wasn’t sure either but I knew I wanted to tell their story, simply because it was the story of so many of us. © Ruth Toda-Nation


At the time, older people were seen by some in power as expendable. In the early days of the pandemic, the government unlawfully discharged untested hospital patients in England to care homes which went on to record thousands of excess deaths. This apparent disregard for our oldest citizens prompted me to document what I was witnessing daily — not only as a daughter and carer to my father, but also as a photographer. 

John and Mary’s experience epitomised everything that I felt was unjust about the treatment of our oldest citizens. My father was already suffering isolation and loneliness when Covid restrictions sent him deeper into despair. Sadly, his situation was not unusual. Following an Amnesty International investigation in 2020, the organisation said “irresponsible” government decisions had led to multiple violations of the human rights of care home residents who were seen as “expendable” — their right to life, to health and to non-discrimination — and it called into question Britain’s already failing care system. 

John and Mary both dedicated their lives to helping others — John as a Christian minister and Mary as an NHS nurse. Mary, a salt of the earth Geordie who always called me “pet”,  John a Londoner with a humble and peaceful demeanour, brought together through circumstance, age and their shared benevolence. In December 2021, Mary was moved into a nursing home and passed away alone, unable to have visitors except behind glass. She died believing that she had been locked away and imprisoned. 

Love is a Life Story is dedicated to Mary and is a testament to the importance of friendship and faith, especially in the face of adversity. Permeated by themes of love and loss, this series of images aims to give voice to a generation who are often overlooked and underrepresented. 


Love is a Life Story by Ruth Toda-Nation
John and Mary walked up to the cafe with a spring in their step, joyous at their first walk to freedom after the lockdown. The high street was still quite deserted, though the few who were there smiled knowingly and lovingly. Cars stopped to wave them over the road; people stood to one side to let them pass, greeting them politely. © Ruth Toda-Nation


I wanted to portray their strength, resilience, and positivity. I was gifted these insights through my father’s retirement community. Together we found beauty in the small everyday things — caring, friendship, faith and sharing. We found beauty in hardship. Bonds were strengthened and neighbours and friends replaced family. As the wonderful poem by Benjamin Zephaniah says, people need people, and I felt this more than ever while making this work. 

Their faith, their memories and their friendship became their companions like never before. Through this I learnt that what we leave behind are the stories we tell. I was given a beautiful insight into friendship and love in the final decade of life.  

Our bodies grow old, but our hearts long for the same things. And why not? Society doesn’t like to talk about ageing and even less about death, but I believe it’s an important dialogue to have. This project exemplifies the beauty in ageing and Mary and John show us how to “do it well”.

New memories

I shot each image in landscape because I had a vision of the work flowing like a book, a story book. Each day we turned a new page and it was more of the same Covid-19 restrictions, but I created new images and memories and time with them. 

The work has a beginning and an end in the physical sense, but not in the spiritual sense because that is eternal. Both John and Mary had a strong faith and held on to that. They both believed that the end was just the beginning. 

My father’s story continues, so in that sense this project is a verse or chapter within the bigger, unfinished tale. I recorded John and Mary’s voices and our conversations on my phone. I listened a lot. The project is shot entirely on film, in natural light using my old 35mm Nikon cameras.  

I continue to photograph my father’s life amidst this backdrop and the pressure put on unpaid family carers of whom there are approximately five million in England and Wales.


The story

Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
John and Mary were neighbours at no 19 and 20 in their retirement facility. John’s mind was pin sharp, but Mary’s memory was fading, and her thoughts were sometimes confused. John’s legs were weak, but Mary was extremely strong, walking daily. This beautiful balance made up for each other’s weaknesses. © Ruth Toda-Nation

Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
The pandemic separated families and people were left unsupported. In many cases friends and carers filled the role of family. People were admitted to hospital and died alone, unable to have visitors. Dad was rushed to hospital after a fall, and it crossed my mind that I may never see him again. © Ruth Toda-Nation

Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
Humans are at their best when they care for others. John was finally discharged, and Mary and he were ecstatic to be reunited. John was deposited outside his facility with no care plan and no key. Mary stepped in, at the age of 96. The older nurses are often tough and resourceful, and Mary was particularly so. © Ruth Toda-Nation

Love is a Life Story
Holding on to memories that she didn’t want to let slip away, Mary often recounted her life story. She talked of her life fondly. Each wistful memory was a precious gemstone, a signpost reflecting her existence and giving her a sense of continuity in turbulent times. Of her husband, she said: “David was in the Navy when he first saw me and said that’s the girl I’m going to marry. In those days we didn’t hang about; decisions were made, life was precarious.” © Ruth Toda-Nation

Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
“Church doors have never been locked against us as they have been over the last few months.” My father mentioned this often. Church provided a lifeline for many, and in normal times John and Mary walked up to the church every week. Some freedoms were restored for a while. As I took this photograph I was reminded of the waiting room of life, the transience of our journey and the importance of community and spiritual sustenance. © Ruth Toda-Nation

Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
Mary and John were so happy to finally be able to go to the local café, but this was to be their last cup of tea together. © Ruth Toda-Nation

Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
Mary’s memory deteriorated rapidly, and she was moved into a nursing home. John and Mary were finally able to meet again, but in a pod with glass between them. The Celts believed that the visible and invisible worlds were one, and for them certain places were known as “thin places” with an invisible membrane as a kind of spiritual ozone layer. I could feel the wall growing thin. This was the last time we saw Mary. Her time had come to move beyond the veil. © Ruth Toda-Nation

Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
Mary’s small coffin was covered in sunflowers. These blooms resemble the sun and are associated with spiritual knowledge and the desire to seek light and truth. In parting, as we sang You Are My Sunshine, the yellow glow of the flowers reminded me of the importance of friendship, caring and love, which is what Mary gave to the world and to my father. © Ruth Toda-Nation


Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
Dad wandered around like a lost soul after Mary’s passing. © Ruth Toda-Nation


Love is a Life Story © Ruth Toda-Nation
There is something incredibly sad when all that is left is someone’s empty room. Looking through the window it was like a dream, a distant memory. © Ruth Toda-Nation


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About Ruth Toda-Nation

Ruth Toda-Nation’s photographic practice is informed by a nomadic childhood bridging two cultures, Japan and Britain. She began photographing in Liverpool in the 1980s and later in the rural areas of northern Japan. She continues to document communities in the UK where she lives. 

Her intimate approach interweaves themes navigating family dynamics and community bonds while reflecting on ageing, loneliness, transience, and departure. Ruth brings a unique perspective to her photography using images and words drawn from interviews and conversations with her subjects. 

She gives voice to people and communities through allowing their stories to unfold and invites the viewer to grasp the spectrum of pain, sadness, joy, and happiness they experience.

Ruth’s first photo-text book, Our Lockdown Garden, was published by The Mindful Editions in 2022.



Exhibition dates

As a winning project in the Royal Photographic Society’s Documentary Photography Awards 2023, Love is a Life Story is part of a UK touring exhibition beginning in May 2024. 

The exhibition can be seen at:

  • London: Nunnery Gallery, 7th to 21st May
  • Inverness: Eden Centre, 1st to 27th June
  • Stirling: The Stables Gallery, 1st to 31st July
  • North Wales: Oriel Colwyn, 3rd to 30th August
  • Newcastle: Newcastle Arts Centre, 5th to 30th September
  • Oxford: St. John's College, 7th to 28th October
  • Bristol: RPS House, 17th January to 9th March 2025. 

For more details, visit the RPS Documentary Group events page. 

Please check dates and times with individual galleries before attending.  

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