A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
In 2017, Clélia Odette found herself.
Good things rarely come from a carpool, besides the ambient feeling of doing right by the environment. They are cramped and awkward at the best of times. But one day the 24-year-old French-Swiss photographer living in Brussels found herself in a carpool that would have a massive influence on her work going forward.
“By chance, I ended up sitting between an older retired lady and a youngish mother, who was a gynaecologist, and they started talking about the menopause,” says Odette. “Around that time, I was increasingly finding myself revolted at the extent of sexism in society, but I’d never really thought much about the issue of women ageing. And I hadn’t really heard people talk about it either.”
During that ride, Odette recalls, the retiree started crying, explaining that she felt she had lost her purpose in life since hitting menopause. She felt undesirable. “Her husband had cheated on her with a younger woman — so this lady had gone to get a boob job and botox, so she could feel a bit better about herself physically.” The conversation made a strong impression on Odette, who got out of the car feeling sad to be a woman in such a society.
Despite the age difference between Odette and the women she had driven with, the issue of ageing was already on the young photographer’s mind. “Look at how people are always struggling to hang onto youth. I already feel all this pressure, this sort of sense that I’m not allowed to age. It can really stress you out.” Odette acknowledges that these issues are all the more prevalent and pressing for women over fifty — which is why she decided to dedicate her work to documenting them.
The carpool stuck in her mind until in 2020. With the outbreak of the pandemic, Odette resolved to seek out older women to take part in her long-deferred project. She had her work cut out for her — finding women over fifty is one thing, convincing them to get undressed in front of a camera is quite another.
“Lots of people said no,” she says. “It was pretty demotivating. I was putting up ads in the street, anywhere I could. And the fact that I’d started the project during Covid didn’t help.”
Ultimately, it was thanks to word-of-mouth that Odette’s project finally gathered steam. The initial shoots for the series that was to become ‘Belles Mômes’ (Beautiful Girls) took place in a studio where Odette had previously worked as a life model. After photographing her first subject, Sylviane, Odette found that the more images she accumulated, the more material she could show her prospective models to reassure them: “I think people can see there’s nothing degrading in my pictures.”
Instagram also proved very useful in Odette’s quest, and it was via the app that she discovered a world of older, loosely connected influencers whom she was quick to contact.
Before taking photographs, Odette would talk to the models about their lives, their relationships to their bodies and to others’, their romantic and sexual partners, and even more taboo subjects like vaginal dryness and menopause. The photographer found that this helped put her subjects at ease, and built a frankness and trust between them conducive to making the series work. “Wonderful women, people I didn’t know at all, opened their doors and their hearts to me,” she says. “It was an incredible experience.”
Not all the women agreed to pose nude; Odette lets the subjects set the tone. “I ask them where and how they’d like me to take their photo, what parts of their bodies they don’t like — or rather, which ones they’d like to spotlight.” An unexpected result of the project has been new relationships. “Some of my subjects became friends of mine,” says Clélia, “and that’s been amazing.”