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Irene van Nispen Kress turned 50. Feeling the peculiar weight that attaches itself to this milestone, she set out to examine the freight of a new decade. 

Having witnessed flashes of ageism, she sensed that women can buckle under or be lifted by their age. She observed that while decline and dependency were the widely accepted, consequences of time, she wasn’t ready to buy into that narrative.

This project started without an end in mind but when she was finished she had spent two years each with three women, then in their 60’s and early 70’s. Being another decade further into this passage, Ellen, Mieke and Anke had already embarked on a time when efforts spent trying to straddle middle age, begin to fail.  When the quest for soft lighting and a good mirror diminishes and the physical realities of age can be optimized and compensated for but no longer ignored.

Over six years she captured their stories in black and white and spun them into Silver

Irene had a hunch.

By focusing on how age added value, she sought to reveal different possibilities. A time to teach what they themselves could not have known earlier and how “the passage of time can be a woman’s greatest asset”. If people could recognize some part of themselves in these three women’s lived experiences, might it help them see their own future, that much brighter?

First up, Ellen, now 71. Growing old is not something you can really prepare for because “obviously, you grow into it,” but that doesn’t mean she is perfectly ok with that inevitability. She speaks of losing her youthfulness and her sex drive. The power she could no longer wield with men made her feel like she had lost the “safe house” from where she had always operated and grieved, unprepared for male condescension.  As an acclaimed sculptor, she always immerses herself in three dimensions. Her craft demands great physicality, something she must constantly consider. Her body hasn’t let her down, yet, but that too approaches.  She is considering collaborations, something previously never given any credence to and now sees it as a new way to learn. She’s exploring more mentally now; self-knowledge and calm is on the rise.  Ellen feels a less angry intensity; more insightful and reflective about the larger world.  She wants women to grow up, be less vulnerable, get their voices heard and not acquiesce to rigid social programming. As a single mother, married for the first time at 59, she raised her daughter with the same firm foundations that served her so well her whole life. She’s quite philosophical too, accepting the challenge of age as kind of exciting: “Look, there’s no more later”.

Next, Mieke, the eldest; she turns 80 next year. She’s a retired teacher, still considering doing her PhD, if only for the sake of diving into something that might “totally grab her”. She’s crystal clear that taking responsibility for health – body and brain are essential. She was three when WW2 ended and while panic attacks dogged her through life, she finds overcoming irrational fears as an ageing achievement. She reflects that “when you’re young, you do allow your tastes to be heavily influenced by the people around you” and so loves the freedom that comes with age, no longer bothered with the trifling. Now, it’s a do what you’re capable of; you only regret the things you didn’t do. She’s removed the mirror from her bathroom, not caring to dwell on the difference between how her looks are perceived and how she actually feels – and feels no shame. They’ve always allowed each other independent paths and truly appreciates the profound camaraderie a long term partner offers. Time makes communication without words possible and makes the looking after each other part, grow even stronger. Her advice to women her age, who bemoan their lack of a partner, is simple: If you want it, use every means available ”go on one of those sites!”  Mieke’s been married for over 50 years. And while death is inevitable, she sees everyone who has ever lived as an “enormous energy field’, that returns. All that we have been, thought, learned returns to inspire and influence others and that thought gives her great comfort.

Finally, Anke, 68, explains relief in age. She’s learned to “be” lighter; emphasizing that doesn’t mean ignoring things but does mean truly letting go – of everything inconsequential. She reflects on how love has different layers but all thrive and rely on touch. How physical touching changes but we become more mentally intimate, over time. She marvels at how love varies; one layer reserved for a long term partner, another for a  friend and quite another to harness the fresh love one feels for grandchildren. She has passed through phases in her life: work, motherhood and several serious illnesses, mindful that going through each, you “can only spend your time, your energy, once”. Despite a lurking fear of physical and cognitive diminishment, Anke feels safe. She knows that when it is time to go, she will have the power to decide that for herself and feel positive about growing old.  For her, age had bestowed a long life, something the doctors had not predicted at her birth. 

Anke sadly passed away last year, just before these Silver Stories were published.

Irene’s six year project became an elegant photo essay and developed while she shifted the ponderous weight of her own new age. Silver illustrates that age is every bit as uncertain as life and we must prove willing to live with possibility. Making predictions about something that may never come to pass is where ageism festers – deep inside ourselves and holds us back. She offers us a choice to live like the future is always something yet to be had and to grow old, one must never stop growing.

Hi ho to silver linings and realize what it takes to own silver.