Portraits of the elderly: memories and relationships

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Thu, 01/01/2009 - 21:20

I record memories and relationships, because that is what a good photographic portrait of an elder provides—affordably.

There are very few examples today of professional photographers who specialise in elderly people. It is as if elders have become invisible, or no longer matter. Yet even if they are taken for granted today, their families will someday mourn their loss. Elders in their 60s, 70s, and 80s face inevitable changes, growing limitations on their physical and mental abilities, illness, and death. In years to come their children and grandchildren will recall their memory but will find it increasingly difficult to recall and engage with their relationship--unless they have an image that captures their personality and helps to evoke memories.

How do I create a memorable portrait? My goal is to capture the spirit of the person. I need to understand and appreciate a person before I photograph, and learn more about him or her during the photography. I need to find, select, and use light, shadow, color, and form to symbolize and portray the character and personality of the subject. Often the subject is best captured in his or her world, using natural light, rather than in the neutral world of the studio. There are many choices of style and degrees of formality options to consider--there are many variables and the photographer must find the right combination. A photographer needs artistic talent, training, experience, and perhaps most important, sensitivity and empathy.

Of course I had to survey the competition: what are the options for someone seeking a portrait? Much to my surprise, there is practically no competition. In a world that is rapidly growing older, this is truly a surprise. Either no one wants a compelling portrait of an elder, or everyone can make one that is "good enough."

Searching the internet I find photographers who do "senior portraits," but this means seniors graduating high school. Walking in the mall I pass a photo studio, with a young female photographer on the floor organizing a trio of young children, all under five, for a group portrait. There are photographers doing wonderful series for a woman that document her pregnancy, the birth, and early infancy. There are photographers who can organize a family and their children at home, in the woods, or on the beach, somehow managing to capture the group dynamic as well as each individual personality. But very few focus on the elderly.

As I review the marketing materials for companies that provide residential services for elders, I note that either they have used a professional photographer to generate conventional images showing healthy, smiling, attractive people or the staff takes their own 'good enough' photographs. What both approaches miss is the ability to project the unique character of the institution as well as the unique personalities of their clients.

My clients will be those select individuals and families who appreciate my style of work and see it as a way to record and memorialize themselves or a loved one.

Contents: Living with Age, photos and essays


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