'I'm Less Afraid Now': The Photographer Making Older Women Feel Visible Again

"She's probably got an amazing story to tell, and you would never know until you ask."

by Rebecca Kamm
Oct 17 2016, 12:45am

Photos by Jenny O'Connor

When New Zealand photographer Jenny O'Connor turned 60 four years ago, it made her think. About the visibility of older women, or lack thereof. About transitions both mental and physical; what's been, and what's yet to come. "I was just sitting in a cafe and thinking about what my next project will be," she says, "and I thought, 'Well I'm turning 60...' And I was quite curious about being 60. I had this feeling that it was a slightly different milestone than the others."

The result was Visible: 60 women at 60, a book and photographic exhibition celebrating 60-year-old women in all their raw and unapologetic glory. We spoke to Jenny about her process, the motivation behind the project, and the profound effect it's had—not only on her subjects, but younger women too.

BROADLY: How did you choose the women you photographed?
Jenny: I only personally approached four or five women. I wanted it to be very organic; anybody who came my way who [happened to] fit the criteria of being 60. It's about everyday women: who they are and how they see themselves at that snapshot in time.

What was the process, once you had your subjects?
We started talking about how they would portray themselves—their portrait was a summary of everything about them at that time, and often that was expressed through what they wore, and props. Often they were quite tentative; they would call me and say, "I'm not sure why I'm doing this, it seems crazy. I never thought i would let someone take my photograph... but hey, I'm going to."

Then there was quite a process of unlocking who that woman is. They would come in sort of nervous, and it was my job to get them to forget about themselves and imagine that the camera was a person looking at them. That's why all the images have a direct gaze to the viewer.

I'd say, "What is it you want to say?" And in a moment, she would forget about everything—her nervousness and self-consciousness—and she would say something through the lens of the camera. When that happened I knew it , and they knew it, so I'd say, "We've got it, haven't we," and they'd say, "Yep."

What sort of feedback have you had?
I've received messages from women all over the world saying, "Jenny, I've just received your book, and it makes me feel less alone." What comes through from younger women is, "I'm less afraid now. I've been afraid of growing old and now I've seen these images, I feel less afraid."

I now understand and see the power of women our age putting ourselves out there. If you're sitting beside a pretty ordinary woman with grey hair on the bus, she's probably got an amazing story to tell and you would never know until you ask.

Did you have any stylistic criteria?
In terms of the look of the photograph, it couldn't be hiding anything they didn't like, because this is about us in our entirety. We're 60: Our bodies are not what they used to be.

Another thing I told them was that you will be looking straight down the barrel of the camera because you will be talking to the person looking at the photograph. No demurely looking to the side. It was all about that engagement, and these women understood that. How they presented themselves was largely up to them, sometimes I was involved quite a lot, other times I was involved very little.

What's next for this project? I understand you've already introduced a spoken word element, to go alongside the photo exhibition.
I want to take it international, and have the same sort of local aspect as we have with these New Zealand photographs. There are so many possibilities: It's not just a series of images of women in their 60s, it's about promoting a conversation about aging, and particularly women aging. It's not a topic often discussed. We want to encourage people to think about it and talk about it, to take away that stigma.

When people come to me saying, "At last!" I say: "That's why I do it."