This gorgeous project was made by my collaborator and friend Emily Fitzgerald (we made The King School Portrait Project together). Being Old is a photo-based collaboration between Emily and a group of people from the Hollywood Senior Center in Portland, Oregon. Emily visualised that the weekly workshops she ran would be dedicated to “creating space for a group of diverse older people to come together and use visual storytelling as a method to reflect on their lives, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, regrets and consider their life paths as they move forward.”
The participants engaged in conversation, writing exercises and photography that set out to address identity in a dynamic and transformative way. I was present for a few of the session (you can see me photographing Meryl on the front cover of the project book) and they were fun, revelatory, with all of the participants deeply focused on participating. Though a similar project structure to The King School Portrait Project, working with adults allowed the conceptual development to evolve much more rapidly (less snacks and longer attention spans!).
The participants were from diverse ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and they engaged with creatively exploring the process of growing old. They examined individual, familial, cultural and collective identity as well as the ways in which elders want to be seen and understood. The seniors photographed and interviewed one another, prompted by questions designed by themselves as well as Emily. Their question, answers, statements, messages and photographs (collected and edited by the group) were made into a handmade book, designed in collaboration with Amanda Evans, and shared at several public events including a community event, book reading and large-scale photo installation in the neighborhood (you can see the images below).
I originally conceptualized this project because I had an assumption that older adults, like younger adults often feel isolated and lack meaningful connection in their day to day lives. I really didn’t know what to expect or what would emerge from my work with this group of ten older folks. I was hoping to create a space where younger and older people could connect and share life experiences. I wanted to learn from this group of older people. In a short time, the group meetings took on a life of their own and a collective identity began to emerge in an organic way. I must credit the courageous participation, introspection, and dialogue of everyone involved. I have never been in a group that was so willing to share in an authentic way so quickly.
Through reflecting on individual identity by generating material and using archival images from the past, everyone began to reveal a great deal about their history and the ways they experience the world now. The act of learning photography, generating questions and engaging in reflective writing proved to be empowering and created an incredibly cohesive and dynamic group identity. Participants were inspired to connect with one another and engage in meaningful ways.
This book is a reflection of the time and experiences we shared and the relationships formed. It reveals the depth of skill, knowledge, and ways of thinking and feeling that everyone brought to our time together.