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There we are: Visual representation of old age

Phil Coomes | 09:14 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

Photo by Yang ZHOU

We are an ageing society. The news headlines tells us we are going to live longer and its expected that nearly a quarter of the UK's population will be over 65 within 20 years.

Given that this is something that affects us all it's a subject that is bound to draw many photographers over the coming years.

One who has made a start is Yang Zhou whose final project for her MA in Photojournalism at the University of Westminster is a delightful collection of pictures and anecdotes around the theme of old age.

Yang's approach to the project was partly influenced by her own experiences of growing up with her grandparents in Shanghai. Despite as she puts it having, "a perfect resource for a project on this chosen subject matter" readily available Yang chose to photograph in the UK and was inspired by Bertrand Russell's essay How to Grow Old.

Yang notes: "I'm attracted to the quietness that emanates from the work of Bertrand Russell. I wanted to replicate this and I decided the final form to be a book mainly consisting of portraits and quotations. This would, in my mind, provide the quiet, reflective style I sought."

Therein lies the strength of the project. Yang's delicately focused pictures, taken using an old medium format film camera, is ideally suited to the subject.

Yang asked her subjects to:

"Choose a favourite corner in their room, usually a chair or a sofa, and sit there. This mixture of formality and lack of posing gives the photos a double function. For instance, there is one photo of this 75-year-old lady leaning on the table with her hands holding each other in front of her. It signals to the viewer her eagerness to talk or even debate. In the meantime, it reminds us of a universally valid image of a grandmother ready to begin a serious talk with her grandchild. In such a way, the portraits in this project are both descriptive and symbolic."

The portraits are interspersed with photographs of items found in the homes Yang visited which adds to the projects lack of narrative, something that works in its favour.

Margaret (pictured below):

"For the first time in the last few months I felt a little old. But when I become miserable, I think of other things. Pleasant things. I keep my brain rolling away from myself. If you think about yourself long enough, you become quite stupid.
"Old age is wisdom. You don't know everything, but you know more than you ever did. And you're still learning more. Never stop. One important thing is to adapt to new things, which is quite difficult. You've got to have a broad vision of life to get things together. If your get a narrow vision narrows, you can only see things as they were, not the way they are or will be.
"I enjoy being with young people because they give me fresh views on things, not all I agree with though. But they do point out a lot of things I might miss if I didn't speak with them."

You can see more Yang Zhou's work on her website.

Crossing Currents, an exhibition by students of the University of Westminster's MA Photojournalism course can be seen at P3 Gallery, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5LS from 11 - 13 September 2010.


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