In this post Zoë Green, a second-year photography student at York St John University, discusses her photographic series that sought to portray life and silence through the perspective of an elderly widow.
“Life has lots of ups and downs, none of them are forever. Keep going, enjoy the ups and try to come out of the downs” – Project participant 2023
The photographic series presented in this blog reflects my response to a first semester project which centred around life and silence. Our brief required us to interpret these themes in our own ways and develop our own individual conceptual and practical approach to both module experiences, process of production and curational decision-making. My response was a personal attempt to portray life and silence through the eyes of an elder living alone through a documentary style of photography to capture the isolation and loneliness of living alone. I had the opportunity to photograph the interior of an elderly relative’s home, in which I focused on capturing household furnishings that represented a lifestyle of an old woman living alone and the struggles which she might face.
According to the Arthur Rank Centre, a national charity, isolation is defined as ‘the absence of social contact’ such as friends, family, community involvement or access to services. It is therefore a tangible and measurable concept and isolation can often lead to loneliness. Loneliness is also defined by the charity as a ‘subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want’. The current statistics suggest there are more than 2.2 million people ages 75 and over are living alone in Great Britain, an increase of almost a quarter over the past 20 years (Office for National Statistics). These shocking numbers motivated me to focus on the elderly who live alone for this project.
The images document the widow’s daily routine, such as getting out of bed in the morning, making breakfast and sitting only in her own company. The images capture atmospheres that surround isolation and silence, as well as portraying emotions of resilience and determination of the widow who continues with life, no matter how challenging it gets. The sacrifices and past hardships that our elders have endured, and sometimes continue to endure, are often forgotten, as younger generations focus on the busyness of their own lives. It can leave those who live on their own feeling lonely at best, or at worst, abandoned.
As humans, we crave to experience the loving and comforting presence of another through either romantic partnerships, friendships or family connections. This strong desire to be surrounded by people who bring happiness into our lives and provide support, comfort and joy can help us cope when experiencing times of struggle and distress.
Bereavement, more obviously common among the elderly, can also create significant inner battles. Coping with loss can become detrimental to an elderly person’s physical and mental well-being, as they become deprived from day-to-day conversation and nurturing physical actions that can only be undertaken from a partner. A report on social relationships and mortality found that living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and that loneliness is worse for you than obesity (Holt-Lunstad, 2010). Not only this, lonely people are much more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression.
The image of the half made and half messy bed emphasises the absence of a second person in the household. The notion of a ‘his and hers’ side of the bed is still clear within the image – a second pillow with a pillowcase on it for example, highlighting the widow’s former bed-making routine continues, even though there is no longer anyone expected to sleep there. It shows the emotional strength required to continue with life with constant reminders of loss – the significant other is conspicuous by their absence. The image denotes starting and ending each day alone. It helps us to imagine what that feels like, to walk in another’s shoes, so to speak, and share in their struggle. It may even stir us to remember the elders in our own lives, and how we might support them better.
This image, a solitary chair, evokes a further mental image of sitting with oneself in silence with one’s own thoughts, no company and no distractions. Casual, relaxed conversation that occurs when sitting with someone familiar, perhaps each with a coffee or tea, is something that most people take for granted. This image suggests that in this household, that is not happening.
It’s possible that advancements in technology within society has exacerbated the isolation of elders. Younger generations prioritise social media, online gaming and YouTube over important quality family time. Young people nowadays have their heads buried within their devices, perhaps disregarding and overlooking the elder members of the family who crave conversation.
The image of a table set for breakfast for one person again highlights the lack of company. The newspaper might provide a welcome distraction from the ‘deafening silence’.
The images are meant to provoke the viewer to contemplate the daily struggle of a widow and perhaps to be stirred to remember those they know in a similar situation and reach out.