A Window into the Unknown

Camera in one hand, passport in the other, Anna Catherine McGraw ’24 is on a quest to uncover the often overlooked beauty in people and places.

Words: Eliana Chow ’21
Photos: Diana Sokolov Rowan

Wheaton College IL Anna Catherine McGraw headshot

McGraw poses with some of her photographs on display at CDH.

For Anna Catherine McGraw ’24, photography is a way of making the unseen seen, of bringing the invisible to light. In a recent collaborative project with the Central DuPage Hospital (CDH), McGraw embarked on a creative pursuit of visual storytelling, touching on the hidden corners of life for those living with Parkinson’s disease. From the man whose hands do not shake when he repairs and tinkers over tiny timepieces, to the woman who paints detailed watercolor landscapes without a single tremor, these are the stories often trapped within the four walls of a long-term stay hospital room. With McGraw’s black-and-white photos, the stories and their subjects have space to breathe.

On display at CDH, each photograph renders in crisp detail the well-loved lines in each subject’s worn hands, the fine wisps of white and graying hair carefully styled around wise countenances of people who have suffered much yet continue to cultivate hope.

Although she began the project during her senior year of high school, she completed the display while pursuing her studies in international relations and English literature at Wheaton College. Since then, McGraw has explored in greater depth the stories that make up our world.

“Through my conversations with other students and professors, as well as by listening to Chapel speakers and other visiting lecturers, I’ve learned more about the power of relatability and the power of stories to give us hope,” McGraw said.

In 2022, McGraw spent her summer studying literature abroad in England and her fall semester traveling throughout the Holy Lands while diving into the history and poetry of the Scriptures. Both programs came through Wheaton’s many study abroad offerings, affording students the chance to step outside of their comfort zone and encounter learning in places meaningful to their coursework. For McGraw, both trips prompted her to reflect more deeply on the role of location in human lives and art.

“When I visit new places, I see it in a particular way, but what am I not seeing? What part of this place am I not experiencing because I’m a tourist or even have the opportunity to travel in the first place?” she asked. “Literature offers you windows into places and parts of places that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and that’s a cool thing about art in general. Reading about and understanding a place is complex. It’s never just one thing. It’s informed by a myriad of perspectives and experiences of people who grew up there, have visited, or moved from elsewhere. That all makes a place what it is.”

The same perspective applies to the people she has photographed: There’s a story beyond what first meets the human eye. On first glance, they are simply patients staying in long-term assisted living homes, or under the care of faithful family members. But when you look closer, through conversations with each individual or through McGraw’s photographs, the richness of their life story comes alive.

“Traveling throughout Jerusalem was also very closely connected with my international relations studies, and afforded me a chance to closely study society fraught with political tension.” McGraw said. “It really reiterated and deepened my understanding of the need to humanize others you may feel divided from. Older people can sometimes get sidelined in our minds as college students because we’re not around them as often. But there’s a lot to be gained from remembering how beautiful and human they are—how they are part of our world just as we are.”

As she returns to campus this spring after her study abroad trips, McGraw does not necessarily see photography as a prioritized pursuit for her college and career trajectory. But if life and its memories are made up of snapshots, McGraw is committed to collecting as many as she can, both through the lens and in lived experiences.