The BBC main website has been carrying the results of a recent photography competition on the theme of ageing, for over a week now.
The brief is worth reading in full:
“Getting older is a complex process, but it’s all too easy to revert to clichés when it comes to representing old age. In keeping with the British Society of Gerontology’s aim to enhance knowledge about ageing and later life, this challenge is a chance for you to show a more nuanced approach to the subject: we want to see how you’ve captured the multiple realities of ageing”
This is an admirable aim, but the results are sadly mixed and revealing of a narrower take on ageing than I suspect was hoped for. .
Two things are striking. The first is that every photograph is literal and realistic. There is a lot of Steve McCurry-style, enhanced-reality close-ups of the craggy terrain of older people’s faces from across the world, all beautifully lit. And alongside them are some standard intergenerational clichés, framed to grace any wall anywhere without offence.
There is nothing truly experimental or challenging here which moves away from a commitment to realism – nothing which disturbs and provokes though its use of the medium in any challenging way. Each photo is a polite record not a creative stimulus. Sometimes the captions and explanations add more depth, but it is ultimately the surface that matters, the visual impact of the image. These are beautiful works for the eye not the brain.
Secondly the BBC coverage is troubling. Choices have been made to reduce the winners on show to a smaller number for promotion on the main BBC landing page. This is understandable. Most of the winners are included but the one overtly awkward and disturbing image does not make the cut. Taken by her daughter it shows a mother receiving the last rights. Nothing is hidden or tidied up here. It animates the apparent moment of death in a way that is memorable. It is no more profound than the other images but it is more difficult to forget.
Sadly this competition has not thrown new light on ageing. And the BBC’s questionable decision to exclude this photograph undermines the purpose of the competition’s to capture ageing from different perspectives.
What is now needed is a much more open and challenging exploration of what the camera can do when it is used creatively – to take us somewhere new or profound, to go beyond the surface of ageing.
So enjoy the show but move on quickly to something better and deeper.
Photo © Willem Kuijpers