For years, Annmarie Rita was a fixture in Wareham. She could be seen walking all over town, hauling her belongings on her back, sitting in front of Cumberland Farms, smoking cigarettes that she made with Bugler roll-your-own tobacco, hanging out at Walmart or at the vacant Friendly’s building on Cranberry Highway, and resting at the band shell in Onset.
“She had a lot of different spots,” said Jeanette Fuller, a 23-year-old photographer from Plymouth who spent several months taking pictures of Rita before she died in May 2013.
Rita’s memory lives on through Fuller’s photos, some of which will be displayed at the Wareham Community Television (WCTV) gallery. The exhibit, titled “The Wanderer: A Day in the Life of Annmarie,” runs from Feb. 21 through April 21, 2014. An opening reception is scheduled for Feb. 21, and the public is invited to attend.
“She was kind of an icon in Wareham,” said WCTV executive director Jay Heard. “You would see her all over town.
“She lived a very difficult life, a very hard life, very different than what most people live. . . . I think [the exhibit] will be of interest not only to the people of Wareham, but people everywhere.”
Fuller first approached Rita in the fall of 2012, when she was in her senior year at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She was about to start a photography project for school, and she thought Rita would be perfect to photograph.
“I passed her so many times on the streets, and always wanted to stop and talk to her, but never had a reason to,” she said.
Fuller finally had a reason. She did not know much about Rita, only that she smoked. So one day, in an attempt to spark conversation, Fuller asked her if she had a lighter. She then introduced herself and asked Rita if she would mind being photographed. (To which Rita replied, “If you are photographing art, why did you pick me?”)
After she got her blessing, Fuller started accompanying Rita as she wandered around town. With her Canon 5D Mark II camera in hand, for several hours a week, Fuller followed and took pictures of Rita wherever they went: sitting on curbs, eating Chinese food at Hong Kong Island, selling homemade wreaths outside of a church, and resting at a motel in Buzzards Bay.
The photo project, said Fuller, turned into “a life-changing assignment.”
“I spent hours with her, shooting,” she said. “I took her to coffee, to lunch. Over the course of nine months, she really opened up to me.”
Fuller learned that Rita was born and raised in Waltham. She had grown up on a farm, and had a daughter, Jessica, when she was 19. She told Fuller about living in New Hampshire, as well as Onset. Rita also said that at one time she worked as a lab technician for MIT.
They shared stories and laughs. Fuller said she was so moved by the experience that sometimes she would get into her car and start crying as she drove away.
Between the fall of 2012 and May 2013, Fuller estimates that she took more than 6,000 photos of Rita.
On May 1, Fuller displayed some of her prints at Gallery X in New Bedford. Fuller invited Rita to view the photos but Rita said no, she did not want to. After the exhibition opened, Fuller visited Rita again in early May. She drove Rita from Main Street back to the Bourne rotary. Fuller snapped a photo of Rita with her cellphone. Little did she know, that would be the last one.
On May 22, 2013, Rita was struck and killed by a vehicle in an accident on Cranberrry Highway. She was 55, just days from her 56th birthday.
Fuller was shocked. The next morning, she called Rita’s daughter, Jessica Bruno.
A registered nurse, Bruno is married and has three daughters. She lives in Woburn, and for years had worried about her mother’s health and whereabouts.
“We were encouraging her to get help,” said Bruno, but Rita always refused.
Bruno said she first lost regular contact with her mother about 12 years ago. It was the Fourth of July, and Rita said she was going to camp out in Myles Standish State Forest. After that, Bruno did not hear from her again, and had to track her down in person to communicate with her.
“She struggled with mental illness and chose to lead the lifestyle that she did,” said Bruno. “She was always a free spirit.”
The opening reception for “The Wanderer: A Day in the Life of Annmarie” is scheduled for Feb. 21 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the WCTV gallery at 505 Main St. in Wareham. The public is invited to attend. For more information, call 508-273-2340.Emily Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.