In conversation with... Alex Rotas
“You can’t become what you don’t see!”
So says Alex Rotas, a woman on a mission to fight ageism and ageist attitudes with her inspiring work photographing athletes in their 60s, 70s, right up to their 80s and 90s.
Recent YouGov research among those 50+ shows that 79% don’t think that media portrays them accurately, whether it be on television, radio or online.
Through her work, Alex wants to remind us that becoming older doesn’t have to equate to frailty and ill-health (though the media may lead you to believe otherwise) – there are plenty of ‘lifey’ older people around who lead vibrant, joyful and active lives & hopes that her inspiring photography will force us to rethink our attitudes to ageing.
We spoke to Alex about her experiences and some of the inspiring people she's met along the way.
Have you always felt positive about old age?
No! I grew up in an era when different ages were very much divided – much more divided than I think they are now.
When I was 19 and at university, some ‘mature students’ came. I think they were about 30. I thought they were ancient.
Was there ever any fear or concern on seeing parents or relatives age over the years? If so, when was the turning point?
I come from a family on both sides that seems to be blessed with relatively healthy longevity so the concerns I had about ageing didn’t come from there. My concerns came from the kinds of images I saw and stories I read in the media – so many scare stories (and pictures) of decrepit and passive frailty amongst the so-called ‘elderly’. (You only have to look at the street sign ‘Elderly people crossing’ to get the picture.) The overall image was one where the life-force seemed to have been knocked out. Yet I knew that there was another story and that there were plenty of ‘lifey’ (I love that word, if it’s a word!) older people around, still leading vibrant, joyful and active lives. And that they didn’t always fit into the cosy ‘granny and grandpa’ stereotype either. But where were they in our popular culture? Nowhere, as far as I could see.
What prompted you to start photographing older people in this way?
I used to work as an academic in the field of visual culture and, as a sporty person, I was interested in images from the world of sport. After I turned 60 I did a Google search on ‘older athletes’ one day and nothing came up. I was astonished! I knew there were plenty of us out there, still playing and competing in the sport we loved through our 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. But it seemed that the moment that word ‘old’ went into a search engine, the same care-home type images came up, over and over. Sport just didn’t seem to figure. So I thought, wow, here’s a gap that needs filling.
I passionately believe that “you can’t become what you don’t see”! That belief really underpins all my work. I like to feel I’m a small part of a bigger story: there are lots of us now who are angry about the way that older people are stereotyped and portrayed and who are fighting ageism and ageist attitudes, and trying to present another story. I’m one of many – and I love that! It’s great to feel part of a movement.
Have you come across any people, organizations or groups that are championing older people and/or making strides in positively changing perceptions?
There are lots of people and groups challenging these perceptions - There’s a wonderful campaign on Twitter called #NoMoreWrinklyHands that draws attention to the demeaning way older people are often represented by images of old hands, for example. There are products that challenge the anti-ageing movement (as though such a thing were possible!) such as White Hot Hair which makes hair products that explicitly embrace and enhance grey and white hair rather than trying to conceal or dye it. There are campaigners like Ashely Applewhite in the US, and her wonderfully named campaign This Chair Rocks, fighting daily against ageism. We are very definitely a movement, not lone voices!
Why do you think there is such negativity around ageing?
I think fear is a great driver in keeping negativity around ageing alive and well. Fear is always news: make people frightened and they’ll want to know more. It’s good copy. Fear also creates difference; it makes an Us and Them. And that’s a great marketing tool. If ‘we’ don’t want to be like ‘them’ then look at all the products that can be created to supposedly stop this happening. For me, it’s all about fighting this fear and making getting older seem like an exciting time of opportunity rather than something to be terrified about. In my case, I’ve never felt happier – or more free.
Has being exposed to much older people doing incredible things changed your approach to or outlook on life?
I always thought of myself as already having a positive approach to the ageing trajectory. But the more people I photograph who are excelling in their chosen sport through, let’s say, their 80s and 90s, the more I can feel my own perceptions continuing to evolve. I am totally in awe of the sportsmen and women who train rigorously, throughout the year, in their 80s and 90s. They are all so knowledgeable too – they know when to stop, when to take rest days, they manage their diets and for the overwhelming most part they treat their passion as just part of their lives, not as the be all and end all of everything. However, these people are not much older than me: I turn 70 myself next year. They have given me optimism yes, but most of all they have given me joy: I have become friends with many of them. So my life has become fuller and richer on that level too. I feel very grateful.
Can you tell us about a couple of your favourite photos that you’ve taken in the last few years of an older person? And the story behind it?
Here are a couple of my favourite photos (though I actually have loads of favourites, so it was a hard choice picking two!)
This is Rosa Pederson, winning the women’s long jump competition at The European Masters Athletics Championships in Aarhus in August 2017. Rosa is 87 and she’s the current world champion in her age group and also world record holder, having cleared 2.93m. I really enjoy looking at her in this photo. You can see the force with which she’s landed by the flurry of sand in the air. But what I really love about Rosa is that every time she jumps, she throws herself into the air and lets herself fall as she lands. Now we’re used to worrying about older people falling. But Rosa does it every time. Seeing her, and others like her, has really made me feel less fearful of breaking a bone if I should fall. We’re tougher than we think! I also love it that she’s quite a round person, and yet she still flies through the air and has a wonderful lightness to her. She is truly a world-class elite athlete. I enjoy seeing the wrinkles on her arms – we all have those as we get older and we should celebrate them, just as we should celebrate the wrinkles on our face. Finally, you can just see her cheeky little tattoo peeking out from under her vest: she’s a great character, full of life and full of joy.
I also love this picture of two female athletes in their late 60s comparing their biceps. Isn’t that the sort of thing we all used to do when we were kids? I love it how these two ‘older women’ are getting such a kick out of checking out theirs! I caught this moment almost by accident. I was in Izmir, Turkey, photographing what was then called the European Veterans Athletics Championships in August 2014 and it was the end of a long day. I’d left my camera bag in the middle of the stadium in some shade where a women’s throwing event was taking place. I walked over to pick it up to go back to my hotel and just as the event finished. These two women, one Danish, the other German, were comparing their muscle-power, roaring with laughter as they did so. I quickly grabbed the shot. For me this photo sums up the athleticism, physical strength, camaraderie and joy of these events that I am lucky enough to photograph.
You’re based in the UK for the most part, when travelling around the globe to photograph international events, have you noticed a difference in how older people are viewed, treated or addressed in other cultures?
There are clearly national cultural differences to the way that ageing is addressed in different places. When you see this acted out, it makes you realise how ageing truly is a complex cultural phenomenon rather than a straightforward physical one. I spend a lot of time in Greece as I have family there and I am very aware, when I go out for a run myself, that this is something ‘unusual’ for a woman of my age to do. People make comments in the street – something that doesn’t happen in northern European countries in my experience. These cultural differences are important because they can affect how we are treated medically: if we are in a culture that regards people over a certain age as inevitably ‘in decline’, the kind of healthcare we receive can be different to what you might receive in a culture that views ageing as a healthy continuation of the life-course. I’ve experienced this difference myself.
What do you think are the key factors that impact how people age? (e.g. how is it that some people stay vibrant & youthful until their 90s while others may seem quick elderly in their 60s). Do you think social norms are drivers for how we age in society? (i.e. at a certain age you are expected to...)
Most of the attributes that people who age vibrantly have in common seem, from what I have observed, to be do with an attitude towards life rather more than any physical or genetic predisposition. I also think these personal attributes tend to override the prevalent social norms around ageing that might restrict other, less positive individuals. I’ve seen athletes who compete after a string of horrible physical illnesses: they just don’t let the strokes/heart issues/joint replacements/cancers hold them back or define them. They are “bloody-minded”, as one 81 year old stroke survivor told me. They don’t give up. They are goal-orientated and focused, of course, but also in the main down to earth (rather than neurotic), friendly, open and interested in the world and other people in it. In short, they are overwhelmingly positive in their attitudes in general. Meeting such people, as I have, and photographing them is an immense privilege and joy.
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