Book Reviews

Dr Cathy Dunsford

VISIBLE: 60 WOMEN AT 60
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNY O'CONNOR
PHANTOM HOUSE BOOKS
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
www.phantomhouse.com

www.visibleat60.com

It takes a very special kind of photographer to be able to make women at 60 years of age so comfortable that they are willing to bare their souls and bodies to the world at a time when ageing gracefully and outrageously is not always supported by the mainstream media. What is striking about this book and exhibition [and the theatre which has recently emerged from this] is the way the process of being photographed by Jenny O'Connor has allowed the women to own and co-create their own images in their own ways. This kind of collaboration is empowering to all those taking part and for us a viewers.

The idea of photographing women at 60 years of age, giving them freedom to explore their own lives and reflections, has resulted in a unique exhibition and now we also have the book to enjoy at leisure and pass on to others or urge others to buy. If you know any woman at 60 among your family or friends, you could do no better than to buy them this book. Forget the cosmetics or the cupcakes, these women ride Harleys, dance half naked, pose with surfboards, take up the guitar, much to the delight of their grandkids, celebrate life from a wheelchair, celebrate life from Maori, Pacific Island and a range of other cultural or social perspectives. It is this inclusiveness which makes the book so rich and rewarding.

Most people do not feel that comfortable being photographed. I'd say most women at 60 years of age feel even less so given the age prejudice in our society. Yet these women, as the photographer has suggested, were the first generation of women able to define their own lives both within and outside their families. Who and how are they now? Certainly not feeling limited by their age.

What comes across so powerfully when you spend time with this book is the strength and power and grace and beauty of these women. They are all shapes and sizes and yet their bodies and their words speak from a place of empowerment and celebration. They have endured so much over 60 years of life, yet they are not defined or limited in any way by their age. In fact, most of them defy the usual age stereotypes. They question what it means to be 60 and who defines what it means. So often we get perspectives from various health professionals or experts in the field but we do not often get to hear from the women themselves. Here we do – and how!

Whether you stand astride a guitar with a sassy pose like Marion Arts or dance with your own creations like Jennifer Holdaway, whether you stand surrounded by the bounty of healthy food as Malia Falana'i-Andrews does, stating that the colourful vegetables symbolise the way she has walked her life so healthily, or whether  you open your arms with laughter as Marilyn Waring does, inviting us in, we are amazed and captivated by these beautifully empathetic photos and also challenged by their personal statements.

Author Ro Cambridge is wrapped in her words, folding around her and surfing off her shoulder. She tells us that spoken words in her childhood fell on deaf ears and that is how she became a "word mule, trafficking words in and out of the house in my innocent school satchell" and reflects "Here I am at sixty, having smuggled words into the wide and silent space of a photograph."

Women were given free reign to write any text they liked to go with the photographs, and like these words of Ro Cambridge, they are exciting, challenging, reflective and celebratory. Dianne Glennie poses naked with ivy climbing all over her body in such a beautiful and poetic photograph that literally takes your breathe away. The sheer strength of these women at 60, whether they are dancing or posing or playing music, is stunning.

These women revel in their physical as well as their inner strength and this is so inspiring to see and read about. They have defied the expectations of aging and how we are supposed to act. I know several woman hitting their sixties, as indeed I am also, who have been told by others to act their age, as if they are not free to be themselves and by doing so, they are somehow betraying or not living up to society's expectations.

I am of this generation where we truly believed, possibly like many before, that we could and would change the way the world felt about war and peace and gender and expectations. It's difficult to see the violence still surrounding us today, despite the feminist revolution of our times. Yet this book invokes a range of ideas and attitudes that hark back to that wonderful time of revolution and it seeks to draw out our rebellion and creativity in so many ways.

The publication of this book is a wonderfully radical act. Through these images and the words of the women themselves, we see that so many women lived a life of love, with their families and friends. Despite all the massive turmoil in the world they have witnessed over their lives, possibly more than any other generation given the power of the internet and media resources we have today, they still affirm love over death, peace over war. They encapsulate the strength latent in us all, that we can change the world, person by person, one at a time. And they remind us not to be afraid of plumbing the depths of our creativity, to express ourselves as we really are, not as the society expects us to be.

The cover photograph depicts Janice Hill, with her wide brimmed hat and handsome suit, leaning on a wild stick plucked from the forest or beach, looking defiantly at the world. She is herself and yet she is all of us when we dare to challenge the stereotypes of women at any age, but particularly women at 60. I love this photo because it always evokes, for me, a reminder of the strength and pose of dear friend and author, Margaret Mahy, who once gave us her Christchurch apartment during a book festival tour because she knew we were all very poor young writers struggling to survive. That was so Margaret. This one photograph evokes so much for me in my past as well as celebrating the strength of Janice.

So many photographs in this book work a similar way. We are reminded of those we know and love, those we care for and care about. And this is the special skill of Jennifer O'Connor as photographer. She always suggests hints of other people and places, a richness and depth that lies within all of these photographs. It brings us the sense of these women but it also connects us to others we know and more we may not yet know.

The potential latent in this suggestion is wonderful. Maybe we need to get to know more women who are not afraid to be creative in defining who they are? Maybe we can encourage ourselves and others to go through a similar process, even if it is through the imagination. How would you like to be photographed? What images would you choose? There may not be a talented photographer like Jennifer around to capture these images with such panache, but maybe this will inspire us all to consider how we see ourselves and how we perceive others?

One photograph and text suggests echoes as above. Emma Jones faces the camera with her floral dress and warm eyes and high stilettoes. Behind her, in the dark background, is a man in sneakers, his back towards us. Could this possibly be the one and same person? The more you look, the more you see a resemblance. Maybe they are the two sides of one person. As Emma states: "I realise it is time to be the person I am. Not the person others think I should be." Wow. And this is at the heart of this powerful photographic exhibition.

The book ends with two energetic twins, Trish Harrison and Helen Flynn, marching from the pages as they state "the same, but different...forever linked." And this is also an apt symbol for the book. All these women share their age in common yet celebrate their differences. And all will remain "forever linked" by the power of this experience as the subsequent theatre emerging from this book and exhibition reveals. Check out: www.visibleat60.com to find out more.

I'd love to have the space to comment on each and every photograph in this book. You could spend hours with each one of them, discovering more details and reflecting on their image and words. The ones chosen here are at random. I invite interested readers to order the book and check this out for themselves and think about giving this as a gift to empower women you know heading for 60 or already in their 60s.

Visible: 60 Women at 60 is an evocative documentation of an era of women who defied the established norms and lived to celebrate this defiance. Tau ke! There is a humour and energy that flow through the photographs and texts and which lifts our spirits. Aging can be fun. Aging is not all doom and gloom. It is up to us to define how aging will be for us. Read this book and be inspired!

 [c] Cath Koa Dunsford, 2015. Common License Copyright: Please feel free to share this review in any format so long as the author, reviewer and publisher's details are retained intact.

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Cathie Koa Dunsford [Te Rarawa, Hawai’ian-African] is author of 26 books with ecological themes in print and translation in USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Turkey, including the Cowrie eco-novel series featuring strong tangata whenua and eco activists from the Pacific region. She taught Literature, Creative Writing & Publishing at Auckland University for 30 years. Dr. Dunsford is director of Dunsford Publishing Consultants, which has brought 205 new and award winning Pacific and African authors into print internationally: www.dunsfordpublishing.com She is recipient of two literary grants from Creative New Zealand Arts Council and was International Woman of the Year in Publishing in 1997. She is on the Board of the Asia Pacific Writers' Network and featured on a panel of experienced Pacific Artists at Artspeak Pasifika, 2010. Cath Koa has performed at the Frankfurt, Leipzig and Istanbul Bookfairs. Her work has been featured in several documentaries: Cowrie, for Maori Television, director: Makerita Urale; Aotearoa: Skizzen1-3, director: Monika Treut & Maori director Kathleen Gallagher's feature length film, Ranginui. She was Opening Keynote Speaker for the Asia Pacific Writer's Conference [Melbourne, 2005], Oceanic Conference on Climate Change, [University of the South Pacific, 2010] speaking about Kaitiakitanga: A Climate Change of Consciousness. Witi Ihimaera launched her book, Kaitiakitanga Pasifika, at the Frankfurt Bookfair in 2012. Cath Koa Dunsford was one of 8 authors chosen to launch the Frankfurt Bookfair programme at the Berlin International Literary Festival, & read at the Frankfurt Bookfair, Zofingen Literary Festival and Zurich Literaturhaus. Two conferences based on her novels have been held at Canadian universities. She tours the world performing from the books, including traditional Maori waiata and taonga puoro, with her translator and German publisher, Dr. Karin Meissenburg. Contact: [email protected]