ATHLETES AT THEIR PEAK
This Age Thing spoke to Alex Rotas about life, age and how older elite sports people are photographed and portrayed. Seeing that there were no images out there to inspire her, Alex took matters in own hands and started a new career as a sports photographer.
Q. Do you think age matters?
A. Less and less, in fact, as I get older myself. It’s a frightening prospect when you are young, because of all the negative connotations around ageing (which we must change!). But when you find yourself actually in the older category yourself, you realise nothing much has changed at all. You still want the same things everyone else wants: people to love and who love you, something interesting to do, things to look forward to, new stuff to learn, new horizons to breach.
Q. Has this photo-series changed you and how I view age?
A. Yes! It’s made me much less fearful of the decades ahead and much more aware of the fact that you can set new goals for yourself right through till when you are 100 (and why stop there?). Plus I have taken up running myself as a direct result, and I love it! I’m very slow but it has opened up a whole new community of lovely people to me and I too have now got new running goals myself. I never would have thought I’d be doing this before I started taking photos of older elite athletes. (And I love it now when they ask me how my training is going, now they know I’m also running. My running is, in reality, very haphazard as well as very slow, but I get a real kick out of thinking that actually, I’m training!)
THERE JUST DIDN'T SEEM TO BE ANY IMAGERY IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN OF OLDER SPORTSMEN AND WOMEN. THAT WAS WHEN I THOUGHT, WOW! THIS NEEDS TO BE PUT RIGHT. — ALEX ROTAS
Q. Describe the project and your motivation for doing it.
A. I used to teach visual culture at uni and by the time I retired at 60, I’d already started looking at media imagery used in sporting contexts. I have always been sporty myself and I was interested in the different ways that male and female elite sportspeople are photographed and portrayed. So when I hit 60, I thought I’d take a look at how older sportsmen and women were represented, just out of curiosity really. I knew there were plenty of us out there, carrying on taking part in the sports we love through our 7th, 8th and 9th decades. To my surprise, a web search produced no results at all. There just didn’t seem to be any imagery in the public domain of older sportsmen and women. That was when I thought, wow! This needs to be put right. I suppose I was looking for a new project to capture my imagination, and suddenly there it was. Light bulb moment: I’d start to produce the images that didn’t seem to be out there.
Then I remembered I didn’t know anything about photography. But that made it even better in a way as this would be something else new for me to get stuck into. I’ve always loved being a beginner and feeling I can look forward to a future in which I learn new skills or just broaden my horizons really. So here it all was: I’d learn how to take photographs and I would learn about new sports events and endeavours, meet new people. I mean, what was not to love about that?
Q.How old are you?
A. 67 according to my passport. A lot of the time I feel about 8.
Q.How old are the people in your project?
I tend to focus on people over 60 and I am particularly interested in photographing sportsmen and women in their 80s and 90s who still compete on the world stage in the sport they love. I think that is because, now I am 67 myself, 60 no longer seems old to me. I am always on the lookout for role-models who can shine a beacon for me and show me how to live the decades ahead. That sounds a bit selfish, but it is in the mix too: I am looking for personal examples as well as just wanting to get images out in the public domain. I really want to help shift people’s perceptions of what it means to get old and to be part of the conversation about what this whole ageing malarkey is all about. How I see it is that there may be challenges ahead, but there is a lot of fun to be had too.
YOU CAN SET NEW GOALS FOR YOURSELF RIGHT THROUGH TILL WHEN YOU ARE 100 (AND WHY STOP THERE?)
— ALEX ROTAS
Update in August 2021 from Alex:
Not much has changed for me in terms of our conversation together 5 years ago, except now I’m 72, and funnily enough I’d no longer say I often feel about 8. I think that’s because I’ve embraced the realisation that age is both relative and nuanced; it’s actually possible to feel 72 and child-like in certain situations without that being a contradiction in terms. I now believe we need to get away from the old/young binary where Young is Good and Old is Bad, and both are very different. This is the mind-set that makes it a compliment when someone tells you that you look or act younger than you are. I now celebrate my good fortune in being 72 and welcome what a mixed bag it is: some days I have loads of energy, others less, some days my enthusiasm for new experiences is off-the-scale and others I’m happy to sit back and enjoy a simple yet familiar pleasure. And some days are just hard.
I wanted to give you a sound-bite as an update to our very enjoyable interview 5 years ago George, and yet the more I try to think about ‘this age thing’, the more nuanced, complex and indeed interesting it seems to be, which means it lends itself less and less well to a neat sound-bite sum-up! Ageing is not a one-size-fits-all process: so much depends on factors that are out of our control, such as where we are born, what sort of privilege we are born into (and yes, I do mean that in terms of our race/ethnicity as well as our more obvious material advantages or disadvantages too) and our genetic heritage and predisposition towards disease. So I hesitate to be too prescriptive about any aspect of it really.
I will say that personally I have been incredibly lucky both to have reached the age of 72 and also to have had all the fun that is still in the rich and messy mix of it all for me. It continues to be a joy to meet and to photograph the amazing sportsmen and women I get to watch competing on the world sports stage through their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and yes, 100s. I do feel extraordinarily lucky.
You can see more of Alex Rotas’ work here.
Visit Alex’s website to find out how her images are challenges stereotypes about ageing through photography, speaking, broadcasting, writing, links with health organisations – and her blog about getting old herself.
Alex is working on a new project making a documentary film following five female masters athletes called The Maverick Generation. She is proud to be an ambassador for Active Ageing (Bristol).