We spoke to Alex Rotas, photographer behind the age-defying book Growing Old Competitively, about the stereotypes surrounding older people, the way her images change our perceptions and her new 2017 calendar
Looking through the pictures, each is incredibly striking, and unlike anything else we’ve seen. Where did the idea for the project come from?
I decided to start taking images of sportsmen and women in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s when I couldn’t find any in a Google search I did about 5 years ago. I knew there were plenty of us who were still carrying on enjoying the sport we loved over the age of 60, but where were the pictures to show it? Instead, when I put the words ‘old’ or ‘older’ into the search bar, all I got were care-home images. And I knew there was another story, and a far more optimistic and positive one, just waiting to be told.
Do you have a favourite image?
Yes! It’s of Irish athlete Dorothy McLennan, then aged 78, and Brita Kiesheyer from Germany, aged 76, showing just why they carry on competing through their late 70s (featured image). I took this photo at the European Veterans’ Athletics Championships in Izmir, Turkey, in August 2014 where they were competing in the heptathlon event.
Following your successful book, Growing Old Competitively, why have you decided to release the images as a calendar for 2017?
I’ve been putting together a calendar for the last three or four years, but in a rather homespun way, and sending it to friends and athletes on a somewhat random basis. People who had one kept telling me how much they liked having an inspiring image to look at each month – one that made them smile and feel happy about getting older. So this year I decided to take a more systematic and professional approach. I wanted a design that would truly showcase the amazing athletes I photograph and that would make a calendar that’s useful, useable as well as fun and uplifting to look at. I hope I got it right!
Why do you think it is important for people to stay fit and active as they age?
We keep getting told we’re all in for an increased life-span. But I think very few of us want to live longer just for the sake of notching up extra years. What we want is an increased health-span. We want any extra years we might be lucky enough to get to be good ones – years where we can continue to enjoy our families and friends, to carry on doing the things we enjoy doing and to be able to look forward to whatever comes next.
So we need to do everything we can to help ourselves remain in the best possible health in order to be able to do all of these things. And that means staying as fit and as active as we can on whatever level we can. Not everyone can be an elite athlete, or would want to be, but we can all do the best with what we’ve got to stay as healthy as possible.
“…as we get older ourselves we can shift perceptions about ageing by remaining interested in the world…”
What are the stereotypes surrounding ageing and how do you challenge them with your work?
The stereotypes around ageing predominantly centre around physical (and indeed mental) decline. They bring to mind ideas of frailty and of dependence, of loneliness and of empty lives. What a depressing list! Every time I think about these stereotypes, I sigh.
By photographing athletes in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s I hope to challenge just about every one of these stereotypes. The athletes I’m lucky enough to see, and then to photograph, are full of life: they’re determined and focused; they run, they leap and they jump; they throw heavy or unwieldy objects over amazing distances; they have goals and ambitions even if they’re in their late 90s, and above all, they are full of joy.
Alex is challenging traditional notions of frailty and physical decline with her powerful images
What is the best way to change people’s perceptions towards older members of the community?
There are lots of ways to do this and I don’t think any single one will work in isolation. The way I’ve chosen in my work is to try to get more visual images out in the public domain that normalise older people doing things you’d normally associate with ‘youth’, such as enjoying competitive sport or just being physically active. But that’s only one way. I also think that as we get older ourselves we can shift perceptions about ageing by remaining interested in the world, interested in other people (of all ages) and carrying on taking care of our health and living our lives to the full.
Taking up new activities is great and personally I prefer to join classes that are open to all ages rather than those for the over-55s – that way we all integrate and remind each other of our shared interests and our shared humanity. After all, nothing much changes as you get older, it’s not as though you suddenly start wanting different things. We all of us want something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to, as the saying goes, whatever our age!
“…sport brings you right back to the present moment and to an actively imagined future, with goals and targets”
You are an avid athlete – how does competing and challenging yourself make you feel? Do you ever think about your own age?
I love sport and actually as I get older I find I’m loving it more and more – I keep wanting to try new sports and challenge myself in new directions! The great thing about challenging yourself is that it means you’ve always got a future goal – you want to run a little bit faster, or further.
Sometimes I get discouraged, of course. I find it hard to motivate myself to get out and run in the winter – apart from anything else I don’t like all the layers of clothing I end up wearing. I have to remind myself that mental motivation is all part of the process. Running is just as much about being mentally tough as it is about being physically in shape. Every time I go out for a run and I find myself struggling, I try to remind myself of this and remember just how lucky I am to be able to be out there at all, running however slowly.
How did you choose the featured athletes?
All the masters athletes in my 2017 calendar are British, as the calendar itself is dedicated to the memory of British master athlete supreme, Alasdair Ross, who died this year. When I found out in March he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, that was when I realised how much these people I’ve been photographing for the past five years mean to me; how they have become my community too, my ‘family’.
“The athletes I’m lucky enough to see, and then to photograph, are full of life: they’re determined and focused; they run, they leap and they jump…”
Did any of them surprise you with their outlook or attitude?
Yes, the thing that has surprised me the most is discovering how many of them have all the issues that you associate with older people such as hip replacements, cancers, heart attacks, strokes and other health problems. The thing that sets them apart is that they seem to deal with their health problems, whatever they are, in an amazingly positive way.
There’s the female runner in her late 70s who had a stroke and got her stroke nurse to ‘run’ round the hospital with her when she was recovering; the male athlete in his late 80s with too many ailments to list, but who had to learn to do the high jump pushing off his ‘other’ leg after a hip replacement; the heart attack survivor in his late 70s who just got back on track “rattling with tablets”, after his surgery, as he told me.
The other thing that’s surprised me is how many of these world class competitors have taken up athletics in their 70s or even later. Charles Eugster, who’s joint ‘Mr December’ in my calendar, was the new kid on the block, literally and figuratively, at 95. He’d never taken part in athletics before. Now aged 97 he’s making British records and aiming for world ones. It really is never too late to start something new!
Alex’s calendar is available to purchase from her website: alexrotasphotography.co.uk