Image: Hildegund Buerkle, born 1934
Images can provide a powerful way to challenge the way we, as a society, perceive the ageing body.
Alex Rotas, retired academic and competitive tennis player, has spent the last six years taking photographs that defy some of the assumptions associated with the social construct of ageing – assumptions that link getting older with decline, passivity, increasing helplessness and physical and mental deterioration.
Alex was recently shortlisted for the Women’s Sport Trust #BeAGameChanger Awards and narrowly missed out on scooping the Imagery of the Year award, which recognises images that showcase what women are capable of and help to challenge limiting stereotypes.
I sat down with Alex to find out what motivates her and learn how she thinks her images can influence the way we view the physical possibilities of growing older.
CP: What do you do and how did you get here?
AR: I photograph athletes who still compete on the world stage in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. I started doing this when I hit 60 myself and, as an older sporty person, had a look on Google to see what images of other older sporty people I could find. What I did find was very little at all (we’re talking some 6 years ago now). The moment you put ‘older’ into a search engine, it triggers (or at least triggered then) images of people slumped in care home chairs. I knew this didn’t reflect reality. So that’s when I thought maybe I should start taking photos myself, photos that would show a different, and more positive picture.
CP: What are you trying to achieve through your work?
AR: I’m trying to challenge what seemed to me, when I started, to be the dominant narrative around ageing, namely that it is a process involving inevitable decline into inactivity, dependence, passivity and joylessness. I still think there are plenty of misconceptions that circulate in our society about ageing. The idea of ‘frailty’ (physical, mental or both), for example, remains central. The sheer physicality of athletes in their 7th through 10th decades really undermines this notion of frailty. Having seen them in action for myself, my aim is to bring them to a wider audience through my photos.
I hope that viewers might question for themselves just how inevitable and appropriate linking the words ‘frail’ and ‘elderly’ is. We can, I believe, all be a lot more optimistic about the process of ageing than the dominant narrative would suggest. The fact is that so many of us are leading ever-longer lives, and we need to ditch some of the negativity that is so commonly associated with it if we are to relish this prospect and really enjoy the experience.
“The biggest surprise for me in relation to my work with masters athletes has been realising the extent of my own negative preconceptions about ageing.”
CP: Describe a highlight, a low point, and your biggest surprise in relation to your work with masters athletes.
AR: Well, the highlight for me has been the friendships that I’ve made with so many of the athletes I’ve photographed. This was something I never expected or anticipated, so maybe that’s been my biggest surprise too! Sometimes I feel almost overwhelmed by my good fortune at having met so many amazing people and feeling now that I can count several of them as dear personal friends.
Hearing that Olga Kotelko, the legendary Canadian masters athlete, had died was a real low point. I’d only just photographed her in Budapest a couple of months before and had enjoyed her wonderfully generous and warm personality as well as marvelled at the multiple new world records she had made. She was 95 though. Still, I think we all thought she would go on forever and that cliché about feeling a huge light had gone out was something I, and a lot of others, felt when we learned she had died.
The biggest surprise for me in relation to my work with masters athletes has been realising the extent of my own negative preconceptions about ageing. Actually it was when I first saw Olga, in her 90s, compete in the long jump event that I realised that I too had some learning to do. I was convinced that as she leapt onto the sand at the end of her jump and fell forwards onto her wrists, that she would break them (osteoporosis, right?). In reality, she fell onto them, got up, dusted herself down, and went back in line for her next attempt. These negative stereotypes are so powerful, I had internalised them myself.
Image: Pengxue Su, born 1928.
CP: To what extent do you try to capture the full range of emotions in Masters athletes? Is there a pressure or incentive to emphasise joy and happiness?
AR: I really like to capture the full range of emotions – the pain, the anguish, the determination, the joy – all of it. Emotions are what make us ‘alive’ and if we’re living fully, we’re going to experience them all. It’s how shut down some of the images of people in care homes can make them seem that is so tragic. My aim is to show how intensely alive people are when they’re competing in a sport they love, so I’m very happy to show as many emotions as possible – the full range, as you say.
CP: What is the reaction of older athletes to photos of themselves?
AR: To start with, athletes would ask me why I was photographing them. When I explained that I was interested in challenging preconceptions about ageing, they were only too delighted for me to go ahead. I’ve also discovered that in many ways my role is to bear witness to their achievements. For the most part they are competing in empty stadia: there aren’t any crowds watching them at all. So I’ve been touched by the pleasure that my photos can bring – photos that show they have been noticed, respected & admired.
I published a book in 2014, Growing Old Competitively, and I tried to find everyone in it to give them a copy. That was a special moment for me, seeing the real surprise and pleasure on their faces when they looked at themselves in print. Mind you, one athlete in his 80s said to me “Alex, why have you put me in your book about old people?”!
“These are the special cases. But they show what’s possible – and what’s possible often surprises.”
CP: Some people might argue that images where adults are celebrated for seemingly ‘overcoming’ or ‘conquering’ the ageing process can further add to the anti-ageing culture that is so prevalent in Western society, while also ignoring the numerous structural factors (e.g. poverty, health inequalities, access to sport / exercise etc.) that can contribute to a person’s ability to age well. How would you respond to this kind of argument?
AR: Yes, it’s a valid point. I would say, however, that I take photos of elite masters sportsmen and women. They are the Usain Bolts and Serena Williams of the older generations. Just as Bolt and Williams show what the young human body is capable of, the athletes in my photographs show what the ageing human body is capable of. And that in itself is, I like to think, valuable. Similarly, just as every time a 20 or 30 year old sees Olympians in action, it doesn’t make them think that they should be doing the same thing – they know that these are people who train daily and who are at the top of their sport. It’s the same with the masters athletes who compete in world events. They too train daily. They too are at the top of their game. No way would I wish to imply that people should feel they all should be pole vaulting into their 80s. These are the special cases. But they show what’s possible – and what’s possible often surprises. It goes contrary to the common belief that as we get older, we should be slowing down, and as we get a lot older – say into our 70s, 80s and 90s – that it’s simply not possible to sprint, to jump, to vault and so on. It is possible – even if not everyone either chooses to do so or indeed can (for a whole variety of reasons) do so.
The issues that you raise – the structural factors such as poverty, health inequalities and so on that can and do interfere with how different people age are important, but different issues to the ones that I seek to raise in my photos. They are a crucial part of the whole debate around ageing, and what it means to age ‘well’. I am simply trying to show, by documenting the admittedly extraordinary achievements of masters athletes, what’s physically possible as we age. And to present a positive, joyful visual counter-narrative to the dominant negative one we so often see in media images of older people.
However, it can be tempting – and ‘easy’ in the simplistic sense – to prioritise the notion of ‘active ageing’ in a one-dimensional way; namely that of being physically active. I do think this risks becoming a whole new diktat – one that implies that if you’re not physically up-and-at-it in some way, then you’re a failure as an ageing person. This is one of the reasons I’m keen to start photographing older people who may, let’s say, be confined to wheelchairs but who nonetheless are leading very active lives, in some other, less tangible and less obvious way, be it artistic, musical, mental/intellectual or indeed emotional.
If I should ever find myself in a wheelchair (as indeed we all of us might from one day to the next) , I suspect that it will take all of my inner resources to remain engaged with life emotionally. How wonderful it would be to be able to capture in a photograph the essence of a person who might not be leaping over a high jump but who is nonetheless leaping over (or who has clearly leapt over) many, many inner, invisible hurdles. And who is to say which of the two – the hurdle on the athletics track or the hurdle inside one’s head – is the more ‘real’, the more ‘active’, and the greater one to triumph over?
Image: Dorothy McLennan, Ireland, born 1935 and Brita Kiesheyer, Germany, born 1937.
CP: What have you learnt from your work about your own aspirations for later life?
AR: I’ve learnt so much! I’ve learnt about the importance of carrying on doing whatever it is that you love – and that there will always be different ways you can do this. If you can’t carry on being physically active in a sport you’re passionate about, you can always volunteer on the sidelines, maybe in an official capacity, or you can encourage youngsters, or just watch.
I’ve learnt about the importance of community – the masters athletics community is tight-knit and people gain tremendous pleasure from being a part of it and from keeping up with their fellow-athletes’ news. I’ve learnt about the importance of taking what you do seriously – but not too seriously. I watched a group of female competitors in their late 70s comparing the wrinkles on the arms, and roaring with laughter as they did so! I’ve learnt that there are records to be broken, personal achievements to clock and competitions to enter right through till you are 100 years and over. I’ve learnt that it’s never too late to start something new – many masters athletes don’t start until they are in their mid or even late 70s (Olga Kotelko didn’t know anything about track & field until she was 77).
I’ve learnt that illnesses or health issues don’t necessarily mean the end of a physical career: masters athletes have the same strokes, heart attacks, joint replacements and so on as everyone else. They’re just, in the words of one stroke survivor in her late 70s, “too bloody minded” to stop. They battle on through, even if they’re “rattling with pills” as another angioplasty survivor (80) put it. I’ve learnt that you can go on making new friends at no matter what age, and that this is undoubtedly the most important lesson of them all.
CP: What next? What are your plans for the next 12 months?
AR: I might not be travelling so much this year as I have over the past 6 or so since I started this work, but I have one or two projects up my sleeve building on individual stories around some of the people I have already photographed. I don’t want to give too much away – but watch this space!
You can keep up to date with Alex’s latest projects here:
This post originally appeared on the Ageing and Physical Activity Blog A blog site dedicated to sharing the latest reflections and commentary on research into physical activity and ageing.