NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Narrating lives, creating images: Reflections from a photography event

In 2019, nearly 500 women over fifty participated in a photography event called 500 Strong. Photographer Ponch Hawkes photographed these women posing nude in studio spaces in Melbourne and in Victorian regional towns … to fashion a dialogue about women’s bodies that avoided the clichés of decline and loss, but as an artistic challenge to reimagine ageing representation.

By Dr Lila Moosad

In 2019, nearly 500 women over fifty participated in a photography event called 500 Strong. Photographer Ponch Hawkes photographed these women posing nude in studio spaces in Melbourne and in Victorian regional towns. This photographic exhibition was an event of the Flesh after Fifty series of exhibitions and panel discussions encouraging conversations about older women and ageing bodies. The aim was to fashion a dialogue about women’s bodies that avoided the clichés of decline and loss, but as an artistic challenge to reimagine ageing representation. The women were encouraged to take props, and in consultation with Ponch, adopt poses of their choice for the sessions.

Posing for the 500 Strong photo shoot was more than contributing to a single creative event. For Yiola, getting older meant a questioning of who she was and what she wanted as her legacy.

A group of these women took part in an associated project conducted by the Gender and Women’s Health Unit between 2019/20 called Through their Lenses. As part of this I conducted qualitative interviews that explored creativity, wellbeing and ageing with 18 women who participated in the photography session.

In this article, I focus on two participants from culturally diverse backgrounds whom I interviewed, Yiola and Abby, and explore their reflections on ageing and wellbeing, creative engagement and reasons for their choice of props. I suggest participating in the photography event offered a way to narrate their lives and the identities they embodied.


“So we speak our truth”

Viola (55) is a writer and poet, so the notion of creativity is not alien to her. She participates in a weekly writing and reading session. However, posing for the 500 Strong photo shoot was more than contributing to a single creative event. For Yiola, getting older meant a questioning of who she was and what she wanted as her legacy. During the photo shoot, her choice of prop was a book:

“it’s a multicultural look at Australia so I thought I’m going to make a social justice statement while I’m there”. 

The book was a homage to her work in the community sector with migrant and refugee populations and her commitment to equity. It was also a nod to her culturally diverse heritage and the migration experiences of her parents. She remembered her mother’s sacrifice for her children in a new country. Like all migrants, her parents worked hard to make sure the future was bright for their children. Her parents were now ageing and she was concerned about their ageing and their access to appropriate services.

For Yiola, participating in the project was a liberating way to explore her own ageing process as well as connect it to her parents’ past and current lives. 


”My history is a strong part of who I am”
 

For Abby, ageing was strongly connected to her migration history and she wondered how she could preserve her life stories of growing up elsewhere before her memories dimmed.

Abby had just turned 60 when she heard about the 500 Strong photography project on the radio. Normally, she would never have participated in a naked photo shoot – her naked body was intimate and private for her. But she felt like doing “something outrageous”. Her prop was a plastic blow up globe she found in a $2 shop. And why pick a plastic globe? I enquired. It was large enough to cover her face and it represented her travels and moving to Australia when she was in her late teens. She spent a lot of time thinking about a pose that would show her in the best light. She was unaware there would be multiple shots and that Ponch would make the final selection. 

She described herself as not being a very creative person but found the brief experience of posing naked surprisingly liberating. She also had to adjust her notions of “perfect angles” and accept that all her body angles were acceptable. 

Abby had recently taken up mosaics and was relishing transforming old pots into spectacles of colour. Part of crafting her post-work identity was to undertake activities she had not done in the past. For Abby, ageing was strongly connected to her migration history and she wondered how she could preserve her life stories of growing up elsewhere before her memories dimmed. 

Viola and Abby were among the small group of culturally diverse women who participated in the 500 Strong project. Their reflections on creativity and ageing, shaped through the prism of their cultural and migrant experiences, invite us to look beyond dominant ageing narratives of invisibility and creative narratives of empowerment. 

 
Acknowledgements

The Through their lenses project was supported by funding from the Creative Arts Research Initiative (CAWRI), The Royal Women’s Hospital and Gender and Women’s Health at the University of Melbourne. My thanks to the women who took part in the project, Professor Martha Hickey and Associate Professor Cathy Vaughan.


Lila Moosad is a health researcher in the Gender and Women’s Health Unit in the Centre for Health Equity at the University of Melbourne. My research interests include social and cultural constructions of wellbeing, health experiences of minority populations, the intersection of migration, employment and health, community-based qualitative and strengths-based research. I use medical anthropology and critical public health frameworks to understand these issues.

My current projects involve working with faith communities in Melbourne and evaluating their work on prevention of family violence, and researching the motherhood experiences of young Pasifika mothers in Melbourne.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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