Never give up being who you are

Vicki_Topaz.jpeg

I think the self-confidence of these women has a lot to do with the success of the photographs.


The more they let go, the stronger the images

Vicki Topaz, photographer and author of SILVER: A State of Mind, a collection of portraits of aging women

Give yourself a gift. Take a break and have a look at Vicki Topaz’s portraits of SILVER: A State of Mind. You will see much more than a collection of beautiful women with gray hair. You will see awareness, self-confidence and yes, beauty. Not the prepackaged and one-size-fits-all kind of beauty we’re spoon-fed since we are little, but the one that stems from a life lived to the fullest

Talented and sensitive, Vicki is an American photographer and the author of projects that intersect the spirit of the time in which we’re living. With the women of SILVER, Vicki began her journey out of curiosity and ended up with a reserve of mental fuel to launch herself into new, always more ambitious work. 

Apart from the aesthetic of Vicki’s work that I deeply appreciate, I’m so fond of her portraits, because they show what happens when we embrace our time and let it shine through.

Can you tell us why you decided to work on SILVER: A State of Mind?

The SILVER project took root in 2007, the same year I turned 60 years of age. At that point, I had not thought much about aging but 60 served as a milestone, a reminder that I was growing older. I began to wonder what other women my age were thinking and feeling about this time in their lives, especially those who chose to let their hair go gray - one of the ultimate symbols of aging in U.S. and many other cultures. I wanted to discover if they were embracing this time or if they were challenged, and perhaps feeling like second-class citizens. It seemed that an initial question about the silver color of their hair would lead to some intimate revelations and that happened both in the interviews and the photo shoots. 

I read you took pictures of 52 women: how did you recruit them?

All of the women in SILVER were known to me personally or were friends of friends—some degrees of separation but “all in the family” so to speak. I was thrilled to have women from so many walks of life. Interviewing and photographing these 52 women was an illuminating experience. I found, through our conversations, that they are self-assured, living vital and interesting lives and, that growing older is enhancing their life's work and their relationships with family and friends.  

What do you remember of this photographic journey? Were you satisfied with the images from the beginning? Did you need some fine-tuning?

Even with the first shoot, I knew it was going to be an enriching project because the women were so excited and motivated to speak their minds about letting their hair go silver, which of course led to much deeper topics that sometimes included being called "a grandma," feeling alienated, ruptures in relationships, etc. but overall how this transformative change led to empowerment and strength. Many already had found “their voice” and others got there. In this way, the interviews (prior to the photo shoots) truly informed the photography. They were eager to go. Very few were shy in front of the camera. From the beginning, I was thrilled with the imagery.

The protagonists of SILVER come from different walks of life, but it feels they have something in common. What do you think it is?

Most obviously they have silver hair in common, however their stories on reaching the decision to “go silver” were different. Not an easy decision for many as grey hair is viewed with the stigma of aging in a culture that cherishes younger women…although I have seen that change just in the past few years. They all had in common the desire to “be seen” and for their voices to be heard and all succeeded in that.

If I look at this collection of images, I marvel at the beauty of the women you photographed. These women seem so aware, self-assured and I wonder: is this what makes them appear so beautiful?

I think their self-confidence has a lot to do with the success of the photographs. They gave a lot during the shoots. The more they let go, the stronger the images. I found them all to be very “alive”- content in their lives but not without challenges and conflicts…but that is part of living.

What unexpected lessons have you learned thanks to this photographic journey with aging women?

Knowing, interviewing and photographing these women instilled a confidence in me about it being okay to grow older. I’ve still not given up the dye… I’ll always be a "redhead" like my grandmother and although we had some good laughs about it, I never felt judged. 

Everyone seemed to be in the camp of, if that’s your choice, then that’s okay, go for it. After several years with this project, I would say that I’m proud to be my age. Where I'd had doubts, I found inspiration. I feel the SILVER photographs and stories help boost self-assurance relative to the fears many women face as they age. 

How did this experience influence your philosophy of aging?

My philosophy on aging is all about the importance of accepting ourselves as we are, no matter our age. The experience of knowing these women has helped define what aging means for me, all that it can be, and that I am part of a vital, energized community of women. 

The experience of SILVER negated any fear I had about being too old to reinvent myself. My hope is that this work inspires women (and men) to share their experiences about growing older and causes a re-evaluation of stigmas and unsympathetic attitudes about aging women and gray hair that have persisted for so long in our society.

When I launched The Age Buster, one of the obstacles I stumbled upon was visual: the images of older women I see around have no appeal. They are like old couples holding hands on the beach at sunset. I feel we lack positive visual references of aging women. Do you agree?

Over the past several years I’ve noticed quite a shift in how older women are represented in the news, in fashion, in the family, at work. It has changed significantly since I began SILVER in 2007. The window is now; it was not in 2007. It is also impressive to find so many younger women who were and are searching for their role models and some have found them among the women in SILVER.

What could be an alternative way to represent aging women in photographs, advertising and the media? 

I think we need to show aging women just as they are and what they are doing. I read articles and see images in all kinds of media about wonderful, powerful, funny, aging women. I post a lot of the “stories" on the SILVER Facebook page and there is never a shortage of material. Not so back in 2007.

We know aging is bringing many gifts. How is aging impacting on your art as a photographer, in particular?

Going through the process of making SILVER, I grew quite a bit personally and gained more confidence in creating my art. At the beginning of SILVER, it was somewhat intimidating but I grew into it fast. I felt strong connections with the women from the start. The collaboration was great fun and very insightful.

I read about HEAL! Is there a common denominator between this project and Silver?

Without the years of working on SILVER, I’m not certain that I could have conceived or executed HEAL!, a project about veterans with PTSD and their service dogs. SILVER taught me a great deal about how to communicate with folks during interviews: listen, let them tell their stories. I was the conduit through which their stories flowed.

What is your next project?

After seven years of working on HEAL! which is still ongoing, I have chosen to take that work a step further. I am currently making a feature length documentary film about veterans, their families and their service dogs.  

If you could share your wisdom about aging with other women, what would you say?

I would simply offer this: don’t ever, ever give up… whatever it is you are after. Do not give up on being who you are. Stay active mentally and physically. Keep curious. But don’t ever, ever give up.