When good friend Pedro Meyer founded ZoneZero in 1995 — one of the first photography websites, and a platform for photographers worldwide as they negotiated the transition from analog to digital — I never imagined seeing my work there. But a few years ago Pedro caught sight of a few of my portraits, and thanks to the skill and persistence of picture editor Nadia Baram, a portrait gallery of nine of the 80- and 90-year-olds I’ve met in the last few years just went up on ZoneZero. I’m honored, and so pleased. Below, the introduction I wrote to the Staying Vertical gallery. If you visit, don’t miss the short audio clips.
For several years I’ve been working on a project called Staying Vertical, about old age in America. I began by interviewing people over 80 who work, and everyone seemed to know someone — neighbor, teacher, shop-keeper — whom I should talk to. This photo gallery is an introduction to nine of these older workers. You can learn more about them, and meet others, in the Stories I’m Hearing section of my website.
These conversations changed me. The youth-obsessed United States is an unkind place to grow old, and I dreaded the prospect — although I very much hoped to do so.
These men and women are my scouts, reporting from the frontier of late life, and I’m pleased to say that the journey’s looking better all the time. From the outside, what we lose as we age is more obvious than what we gain, so we presume that older people are worse off than they themselves experience. In fact many different studies show people to be happiest at the beginnings and ends of their lives, and now I believe I’ll be one of them.
This personal transition was part of a larger political one, as I learned about a world whose population is aging with unprecedented speed. We’re entering a new stage of human evolution, in which four living generations will become commonplace. This transformation has immense cultural and economic implications. The more each of us learns about what it’s actually like to be old, the less frightened and more humane we become — and the better equipped to rise to this extraordinary challenge.