Photographer Tim Cuff dares us to look beyond age as he puts faces and vivid stories to our older generation in a series affirming the diverse life experiences of Aotearoa’s ageing population
Words: Adrian Hatwell
Photos: Tim Cuff
The New Zealand government estimates that, by the year 2034, the number of people aged 65 and over will reach 1.2 million — more than a fifth of the population. This is the demographic identified as ‘older persons’ by the United Nations, which estimates some 1.5 billion will fall into that category globally by 2050.
While the world population continues to age, in many countries — Aotearoa included — the older generation is consigned to poverty and desperation in their twilight years, a United Nations expert on older people stated during a recent visit here. Older Kiwis are often unable to afford adequate housing, heating, and nutritious food, with the older Māori population particularly badly affected.
So how can we improve the lot of our elders? Photographer Tim Cuff is starting by helping to realign people’s perception of the elderly through photography. Teamed with the Age Concern Nelson Tasman social organisation, Tim has created an exhibition of dynamic portraits exploring the stories and achievements of some of the service’s unassuming clients.
The idea behind the Beyond the Face project initially came from Age Concern’s communications officer, Miriam Clark, who had worked with the photographer in the past.
“Her idea was to challenge people’s perceptions of the elderly, telling their backstory in words accompanied by a present-day portrait,” Tim explains. “All of the shoots I’ve done for Age Concern have been really enjoyable, and it’s no surprise that most of the portraits we ended up using show the participants with a twinkle in their eye.”
Tim’s photography background is in newspapers and magazines. Born in London, he worked for 20 years in south-west England as a freelance shooter for various national publications before moving to Nelson with his writer wife and children in 2006. He has since shot for The New Zealand Herald, New Zealand Geographic, AA Directions, and the “late, great, original” North & South magazine.
“I wanted to be a painter from an early age, but at art school met an inspiring photography tutor, Chris Chapman, who opened my eyes to documentary photography,” Tim recalls. “We shot everything on uprated Tri-X and it was gritty and immediate — well, as immediate as you could be in those pre-digital days. I’m still occasionally in touch with my old teacher and have told him how grateful I am that he put me on my career path.”
Tim’s extensive experience in that documentary mode made him an ideal pick to shoot images that explore the hidden histories of these elderly subjects. Miriam handled the written profiles that accompany the portraits, outlining the special reasons behind elements of the photos, leaving Tim free to plan out the perfect scenario for each shot.
“For some pictures, location was very helpful in telling the story visually, so I spent time considering where to take each shot — Peta, for instance, was photographed in amongst the model sailing ships she’s built over many years that are now on display at a heritage park; I felt actress Adele deserved to be centre stage at Nelson’s Theatre Royal; and cricketer Ralph was happy to lark around with his walking stick at the Wakefield Reserve, where he’d played many an innings.”
The photographer would pick up his subjects and drive them to the shoot location, which gave him a good opportunity to get to know them. He spent an hour with most but some were more keen than others to bend Tim’s ear.
“I was with Eric for about three hours in his old farmhouse kitchen while he told me his life story, a gripping tale of surviving a hunting accident, and then we spent five minutes taking his picture.”
The idea of the cantankerous oldster who doesn’t want any sort of device pointed their way is one of the many myths Tim was able to dispel during this project. Like a collection of people in any demographic, each of the elderly subjects approached the shoot with a different attitude.
“Sandy was happy skipping across muddy fields while John was limited in movement and used a walker — so one has to work with those varying situations. I’m quite happy chatting to people as I’m shooting, so we’d be nattering away during the shoot and they’d often not realise the time [was] passing.”
He found all 12 of the people featured in the exhibition to be relatively comfortable in front of the camera — even the “indomitable” Ruby, who in her image is just seconds away from giving the photographer a telling-off for shooting her in close-up.
Tim’s big takeaway from the project was to reinforce the old adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. It might not show in their outward appearances, but many of these ordinary-seeming people have lived extraordinary lives and participated in events that will never occur again.
“Sandy, for example, worked for the UN food programme in Africa and lived through violent and dangerous times. Despite her being petite, polite, and quietly spoken there’s a real steel to her. The work she’s done has improved the lives of thousands of people in poor countries.”
The majority of the portraits were shot with natural light, although a few were lit with battery-powered Lumedyne heads that Tim has had with him for about 25 years — he has since swapped them out for some lightweight Godox units. The photos have had no digital processing aside from converting the Raw file to JPEG.
“I’m from a news background, so don’t tend to play with pictures once they’re in the camera,” Tim says.
The photographer hopes the exhibition, with its striking imagery and fascinating stories, will be a reminder to visitors not to take our elderly population for granted.
“Without them and the many extraordinary things they’ve done in their time, we’d not be living the lives we do, in the country we do. We often say the children are our future, but the elderly are our past — we literally wouldn’t be here without them.”
The Beyond the Face exhibition was well received when it opened in Nelson’s Elma Turner Library and has since travelled the region. Tim says Age Concern was even able to bring a group of the subjects to the opening, where they were able to bask in the project’s completion.
“And it was another opportunity for Ruby to tell me off again for shooting a close-up.”
Word has it that the organisation may have plans to reprise the Beyond the Face project in 2022, so with luck we’ll soon have even more of our older people telling their stories and looking terrific in front of the lens. With the population growing older each year, we should seize every chance to celebrate and empower these lives that carry with them so much of our past.