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Laura Page "It’s time to start boldly reimagining what older age can be"

Sheffield photographer Laura Page subverts stereotypes and shines a fresh light on older life with her new exhibition of portraits and stories, Hidden Depths.

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On Friday 4 March, Laura Page’s Hidden Depths exhibition opens at Yorkshire Artspace. The series is a joyous celebration of older life, inviting viewers to reimagine ageing. I chatted to Laura to hear more about her exciting new work.

Your new exhibition, Hidden Depths, features more than 30 portraits of older people, and documents their rich and interesting lives. How did the project come about?

I’d been thinking about ageism, particularly after spending time working as a socially-engaged artist with older people with dementia and in residential homes.

I met so many people who just seemed to be looked through a lot of the time, but getting to know them I met some of the funniest, wisest, most resilient people, who’d lived through times I could only imagine. I noticed how inaccurate and lacking many media images of older people are, and this spurred me on to submit a proposal for the Rebecca Vassie Award to photograph older people in a more positive light. I won the award.

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The BBC published a selection of the photos on their website, leading to a sudden wave of attention. What was that experience like?

It was actually the day after the BBC published news that I’d won the award and was looking for people to photograph that I woke up to over 400 messages from people recommending themselves or someone they knew.It was surreal. I was literally gaping open-mouthed at my phone as the messages just kept coming. I realised I was going to have to photograph more than the initially proposed 10-15 people pretty quickly. I wrote back to every person and had brilliant chats with a lot of them.

It was later that the BBC published some of the images and then I got some really lovely messages from people saying that hearing the stories had helped them to feel differently about themselves and ageing, and to feel more positive about the future. That made me really happy and grateful that people had been kind enough to share their stories with me.

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No doubt you encountered some wonderful characters while shooting the portraits. Can you tell us about a couple of your favourite moments?

There were many. I love a rebel so I particularly enjoyed hearing Moira’s story about faking her birth certificate so she could volunteer for the London Olympics crew, where she sneaked onto the stage to dance at the opening ceremony. She then learnt Brazilian Portuguese, flew to Rio and stayed in a youth hostel, bought a Brazilian dance outfit and danced at the Olympics opening ceremony there too. She’s in her nineties.

I also loved meeting the tattoo artist, Doc. He was really down-to-earth and unassuming but also wise and spiritual, and he just instantly made me feel good about the universe and at peace with whatever might happen. He’s the oldest tattoo artist in the world, still working plenty and also making tools and sculptures from metal in the backyard of his shop.

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The celebration event for Hidden Depths will feature a panel discussion around ageing and self-image. How do you hope the exhibition will shape this conversation more broadly?

I hope it will contribute to shaping a conversation around what it means to be older. It would be good to talk about reimagining ageing. Instead of being seen as a worrying social care statistic in the media, can older people be viewed as wise elders and custodians of knowledge? Can older people with time and deep knowledge work in tandem with physically stronger but less-experienced younger people, supporting each other with their strengths?

It would be good to look more at why we are one of the most age-segregated countries in the world and consider how we can bring different generations together more socially and through work so everyone can reap the benefits. Despite the physical and other challenges ageing can bring, will it help to focus on the new things we can share and learn in later life? And I want to talk about how powerful images can be in shaping negative stereotypes, and how dangerous those stereotypes can be to us as individuals and as a society.

by Felicity Jackson (she/her)
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