Curiosity, purpose, and community are three of the hallmarks of living well at any age. Having the courage to act on these is the fuel that transforms aspiration into action. Alex Rotas perceived in the lack of positive images of competitive athletes over 50 a need that she could fill, a purpose that would give her new community and a sense of agency to impact the world in a much needed way.
To undertake the challenge of learning an entirely new craft at 60 is something that we are often told we can not, or should not do. We are also often told by misinformed yet well-meaning physicians that at our age we should not aspire to athleticism. This is disempowering bunk that infantilizes those who know they can do more. Alex decided to do something about it by lionizing the achievements and humanity of a woefully underexposed segment of the population: the older elite competitive athlete.
We learn through seeing images that what we may have considered impossible is not, that it is merely hard. Athletic pursuits at 60 are different from those at 20, but no less meaningful. Bring the person you are, rather than the person you were, push yourself to become the best version of yourself, because your best time is now, whatever your age. Despite popular mythologies, we are capable of learning entirely new careers, transforming our bodies, and developing new human connections at any age.
Where do you live?
I live in the city of Bristol, in south west England, UK.
Tell us about your trajectory to becoming a sports photographer of people our age. What were you doing before you went back to school to get your MA and PhD in visual culture? What age were you when you went back to school? Then you became an academic. Tell us some about this experience. What was it like to teach?
I went back to school when I was 48 and did a masters in visual culture. I then went on and completed my PhD when I was 56.
“I’d always thought of myself as a words person but had become increasingly interested in the power of images when I was working in a hospice”
I’d always thought of myself as a words person but had become increasingly interested in the power of images when I was working in a hospice, setting up their education program in my 40s. I learned how looking at an image and then talking about it can offer an easier way of encouraging people to explore their feelings around difficult issues, such as illness, death and dying (they don’t get much more difficult than that) than asking them straightforward questions. Looking at David’s Death of Socrates, painted in 1787, for example, opens up all sorts of conversation gambits for both patients and the people working with them (from doctors, to nurses to the cleaners) to investigate so they can make sense of feelings they hesitate to explore otherwise.
I loved being a student again, I loved learning stuff I knew absolutely nothing about, mixing with my fellow students and academics, and pushing myself hard to try to get my head around something totally new to me. Then I was offered a post teaching ‘theory’ to art, media and design students myself. By this stage I was in my early 50s and it was exciting to be teaching young men and women, most on the cusp of adulthood, both in the lecture theatre and also in one-to-one situations where I supervised their dissertations.
“I loved being a student again, I loved learning stuff I knew absolutely nothing about”
One of the things that struck me was the conversations I was having with the young men I was supervising. I realized that one of the most joyful aspects of getting older was how freeing it was to no longer have sexual dynamics at play – and I realized, too, how constraining these had been previously. It felt like a real privilege when students, of whatever their gender, would share not only their thoughts about their work but their thoughts and often anxieties about their futures.
I’ve always been a sporty person so for fun I started looking at the kind of imagery that was associated with sportsmen and women. As an ex-competitive tennis player myself, I was particularly interested in the gender differences I noticed between the top men’s and women’s websites and I started examining and critiquing these. I then thought I’d take a similar look at how older sportsmen and women were portrayed visually in the media. I was hitting 60 and I knew there were plenty of us out there – I still played in masters tennis tournaments and I had friends who were swimmers in their 70s and 80s, too. So I did an internet search putting the words ‘older sportsmen and women’ into the search bar and waited for what would come up.
To my surprise what came up was nothing. Or at least nothing that was to do with sport. The moment that word ‘older’ went in to the search, it seemed to override everything else. The images that did come up were all gloomy pictures of people slumped in chairs in care homes. We’re talking some 12 years ago now and hopefully things have changed a little. They weren’t even joyful pictures of these facilities, many of which are truly wonderful. If this was what getting old was all about, who’d want to do it?
“I thought that pictures of older sportsmen and women would be the ideal antidote to this dominant visual narrative of languish and decline”
I knew there was another much more joyous story out there. But why was the media representation of aging so bleak and depressing, one where the overriding message was one of frailty? Sport is of course all about physical and indeed mental strength and empowerment. So I thought that pictures of older sportsmen and women would be the ideal antidote to this dominant visual narrative of languish and decline. I couldn’t find anyone focusing on this side of the aging story so I thought maybe I could have a go myself.
Then in 2011, at the age of 61, you became a photographer. It is one thing to be skilled at looking at images, and quite another to be the one making them. What were the obstacles you encountered? How are you with technology?
The idea took root in 2010, the year I’d turned 60. Yes, I knew something about the power of images and how they work but I knew nothing about how to make an image. I didn’t even have a camera. But I do love being a beginner. It always makes me excited about what lies ahead, all the things that I’m going to learn.
I would never have been able to devote the time (and money) to this project had I been younger and still involved in the preoccupations that younger life bring, such as building a primary career and/or raising a family. But now I could seek out a tutor, get a camera and take some lessons. I was really lucky in the person I found, a young woman in my home town called Rachel. She was pretty much the same age as the students I’d just been teaching, and she took me in hand with immense expertise and enthusiasm. She didn’t bat an eyelid when I told her that my intention was to go and photograph an international masters games event in Italy some 12 months later. Her remit therefore was to take me from zero to being a sports photographer within a year.
“I’d say that one of the joys about starting something late in life is that you get a sort of reverse mentoring: you get tutored by people far, far younger than yourself”
I’m not good with technology and she had to start me off on a fairly basic camera that was still terrifying to me. The technical side of photography is hard for me and I’m never going to be someone excitedly talking about different lenses or f-stops. Sometimes when I’m talking to camera clubs, I get asked technical questions I still struggle to answer. I’m getting better at talking about the lens I use because I tend to use just one. It’s my workhorse and I absolutely love it (and it’s a Canon 70-200mm, 1:2.8, if you’re interested).
Rachel was wonderful and then I had to get someone else to teach me about ‘postproduction’ and how to get the best out of an image afterwards. I use Lightroom and of course I needed another tutor here. Again I lucked out with Rupert, a young man who still rescues me and teases me mercilessly about what he sees as my chaotic desk and working style, and how I tend to take endless notes of what he tells me on bits of paper that I subsequently struggle to find. In fact, I’d say that one of the joys about starting something late in life is that you get a sort of reverse mentoring: you get tutored by people far, far younger than yourself and this in itself is an absolute joy as you get to know each other and become friends and learn to see the world through their eyes.
What advice would you give to people who are looking to learn a new profession?
So, I’d say that if you’re starting something new, don’t hesitate to ask for help. The whole world operates differently to how it did when we were starting out first time around, and we need to learn to think afresh, often ditching out ideas and concepts that no longer have currency today. How lucky are we if we have the opportunity to do so? To me, it really does feel like getting a second bite at the cherry.
Some people have a voice in their heads that says “don’t try whatever, you are too old.” How does one change the voice?
I think we need to focus on the ‘whatever’ it is that we want to do and nothing else. Doing something new means learning something new and that’s where we need to put our attention. The rest is just noise. Some things might come easily, some might be a struggle but if we want to learn them, then that’s where our efforts should be.
“Ageist attitudes are so engrained in us that we need to be kind to ourselves if and when we find ourselves coming up with a ‘we’re too old’ thought”
I agree, though, that ageist attitudes are so engrained in us that we need to be kind to ourselves if and when we find ourselves coming up with a ‘we’re too old’ thought. But then we need to accept it for what it is: ageism. Internalizing ideas about what we should or shouldn’t be doing as men or women, as young or old, is something we need to name-and-blame: these are lazy stereotypes and we owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us to challenge them and to resist them. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves: these are powerful constraints that pressurize us socially, encouraging us to live fearfully and to spend money on products that feed into our fears. I’d much rather spend money on something that feeds my joy.
You are challenging people to examine what they feel older age may be. Are you aiming to influence the attitudes of the young towards the older people, or to inspire older people as to what is possible?
Both! However, there’s been some research showing that seeing a highly fit and active person, let’s say, in their 70s, is most likely to inspire an unfit person some twenty years younger rather than someone of the same age. If you’re the same age, it’s tempting to see the fit person as in an entirely different category to yourself. You may feel the gap between you and them is just too wide to be bridged, so you shrug your shoulders and carry on as you always have. If you’ve a couple of decades ahead of you to work with, you are more likely to feel that becoming fit and active in later life is an attainable target to reach and something that you too can aspire towards.
However, just as when people in their 20s look at images of elite athletes at the Olympics they don’t think “Oh, we could and should be like them,” the same is true of the people that I photograph. They are outliers: the physical elite. It would be madness to expect everyone to aspire to be like them. What they do is show what the human body is capable of through the life course. And in terms of later life, it’s a lot more than most people think.
So I also hope that my work might encourage health care professionals to raise their expectations of what we older people can and might wish to do. If, as I did, we have a new hip replacement in our 70s, we might be hoping to resume our sports activities afterwards rather than simply being able to walk from one end of the parking lot to the other without discomfort.
“I also hope that my work might encourage health care professionals to raise their expectations of what we older people can and might wish to do”
Watching and photographing track and field athletes in their 60s through 90s (and sometimes beyond) has really made me re-assess my own expectation about what I may or may not be able to do as I progress through later life and reassured me about how much I can still enjoy pushing myself physically. I hope it has that effect on whoever sees my images, whatever their age. As an 8-year-old said to her grandmother at one of my exhibitions, “These pictures show me I don’t have to get old like an old person!”
What is the feeling you get when you look at your images?
When I look through all the images that I take at an event, the ones that stand out for me are the ones that make me smile, the ones that evoke an emotional response in me. I’m not looking for a neat or ‘clever’ composition. I want something that moves me in the same way that watching these athletes perform moves me in real life. If I am astonished, I want that astonishment to come through to the viewer. If I feel admiration, then I want that to show. Above all, I want to show the emotion the athletes feel as they push themselves to their limits: the anguish as well as the delight as they cross the line, for example; their concentration, their focus and their determination.
For me, what makes a person look wonderful isn’t a question of how many lines or wrinkles they have. It’s much more to do with the animation and energy in their faces: how all-round ‘lifey’ they look. Would I like to have a cup of coffee with someone who looks full of life and purpose, and get to know them more? You bet I would. I’d hazard a guess that I’m not alone in that. I hope this life-force is what overwhelmingly comes across in my photos.
Do you see yourself as an activist?
I absolutely see myself as an activist. It’s part of my own sense of purpose. I am trying to challenge the pernicious, lazy stereotypes that circulate in our society around aging, the stereotypes that we all internalize and that can limit us so much as we get older. That’s why it’s always so important to me to show the athletes’ faces in my photographs. I want their age – and then their passion – to be very clear.
In that sense I’m not a classic sports photographer, documenting and reporting an event. I like to zoom in close to the individual athlete, whereas a sports photographer might take more pictures that emphasize the context of a particular competition. Having said that, the sports photos that I enjoy the most, irrespective of the age of the competitor, are always the ones that show emotion.
“I absolutely see myself as an activist. It’s part of my own sense of purpose”
How do you feel about making films vs making still images?
I’m actually involved in making a film right now, Maverick Generation, in collaboration with Danielle Sellwood of Find It Film, and we’re following a small number of British female masters athletes over the age of 50. It’s a new venture for me and I’m really enjoying thinking in new ways about getting across both the exceptionalism and the ‘ordinariness’ of these women’s lives.
Still images and films do different jobs in different contexts and I’m primarily a stills photographer, much as I’m loving having the opportunity to learn a little about film-making. I do love the way that a photograph gives you the opportunity to reflect when you look at it, and to take your time, maybe seeing something different when you return to it on another occasion, or finding that your thoughts take you to a different place. I’ve still got so much to learn – I’d really love to be a better landscape photographer, for example, and to photograph flowers beautifully.
I’m very lucky to have all this ahead of me.
Tell us about your own background as a competitive tennis player.
I have dual Greek and British nationality (my dad was Greek) and as a youngster I played competitive tennis for Greece, representing the country in the Balkan Games and also the Fed Cup, for example. Tennis was very different then; this was before the pro game and it was a time when you might get your expenses taken care of and your rackets and clothing supplied, but not a lot more. For me, it offered a wonderful opportunity to travel that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I played in what was then called ‘the circuit’ (and is now called ‘the tour’) in the US, across Europe and in South Africa, as well as representing Greece at Junior Wimbledon. It was really fun!
I’ve played masters tennis, too; and actually, I’m keen to get back into competition again now. Let’s see!
As far as my photography is concerned, I’m sure that having been a competitive sportsperson myself has helped. Masters athletes tell me they are often asked why on earth they do what they do by friends and acquaintances, how they can bear to put themselves through tough training regimens and the strain of competition at their age. And I would never ask questions like that. I’m working hard on my new topspin backhand now in my 70s, so I get it.
Why do you think there is so little imagery out there around athletes our age?
I think there’s a vicious circle going on here. Few people know that there are top-class national and international competitions for athletes of our age, so they don’t demand to see reports, film or still images from them. If there’s no demand, the media assume there’s no public interest, so they don’t go.
Every time I give a talk about the events and the athletes I photograph, people express surprise and then say how much they’d like to see them in action. Again I’m going to use that phrase ‘chipping away.’ I think we have to keep on chipping away to effect change. It never happens overnight. But there’s a growing army of us now working towards changing the face of aging and it’s wonderful to work collaboratively.
That’s why I felt delighted (as well as honored) when you asked me to be part of your project in this interview. We’re all chipping away at the same end; namely, making aging a welcoming prospect and a stage of life which may have its challenges, of course, but which also has so very many opportunities for personal growth and for joy. Together we can and we shall make change happen. I really believe that.
Main image of Alex by Sean Malyon. All other images by Alex Rotas.
sign up for the newsletter today.