When 60-year-old Alex Rotas did a simple photo search on Google, she had no idea that her findings would pave the way for the next chapter in her career. As a visual culture academic and a self-confessed sports enthusiast, Alex had begun analysing images of sportsmen and women circulating the media. But when she attempted a search for photos of older sportsmen and women, she was astonished to find that there weren’t any.
Since then, Alex has travelled the globe with her camera, meeting and taking photos of older individuals who are still fierce competitors in the sports that they love. Her work not only gives a voice to these extraordinary individuals, but it also challenges stereotypes around age and body image.
Over the last 10 years, Alex’s work has made some invaluable contributions to the fight against ageism. Highlights include self-publishing her book, Growing Old Competitively: Photographs of Master Athletes, holding large outdoor exhibitions of her work which have reached thousands of people, and appearing on BBC’s Inside Out West to talk about the subjects of her photographs.
Explaining how she uses her role as a freelance photographer to break down stereotypes surrounding age and body image, she says “The athletes I photograph are empowered, determined, focused, and goal-oriented. I believe they are in their prime, irrespective of their age. They don’t necessarily look younger than they are. They show that you can look your age and still look wonderful. They don’t look like models because they aren’t models. They’ve got the imperfections of skin and teeth that we all have. They look real because they are real. I’d like people who see them to think, “Yes please, I’d like some of that!” And ’that’ isn’t a product, it’s an attitude. And yes. We can all have it.”
We asked Alex if she would be willing to share a couple of her favourite photos with us and tell us about the subjects. She admitted that she has many favourites, but decided to talk to us about one male and one female athlete. The first is of Sheila Champion throwing a javelin when she was in her mid 70s, taken at her first ever event in 2011 – the European Masters Games, in Lignano, Italy.
Talking about the photo, Alex says, “It was a revelation to me to see someone like Sheila, an ‘elderly lady’, utterly comfortable in the moment of competition being fierce, aggressive, determined, and giving her all to get a medal. Moments later she was back to being her gentle, joyful self – delighted to have earned herself gold.
“What was also remarkable about Sheila, I learned, was that she had had three strokes. Before, she had been a runner but after her strokes she couldn’t run competitively. She still loved the buzz of competition and meeting up with her athletics friends from different countries, so she was determined to find a way to continue. And she did, by turning her attention to the throwing events, learning a set of new skills, and starting over.”
The second photo is of 70-year-old British Athlete, Ian Richards, and is far more recent. It was taken at the 2019 Indoor World Masters Athletics Championships in Poland.
Explaining why she likes this particular image, Alex says, “This is the moment that Ian crossed the line and realised he had made a new world record in the race walk 3000m event. Ian competed in the 1980 Olympics but then took a 30 year break, coming back to competitive race walking in his 60s. He trains now just as systematically and rigorously as he did back in his Olympian days and he is a multiple world record holder in his very demanding and technical discipline.
“He could see from the trackside clock at the finish line that he’d claimed a new world record as well as a gold medal in these championships, and meant the world to him. I think you can see it in his face. Crossing the line on this occasion and knowing that everything had come good.”
“I thought, my goodness, someone needs to show another side of this depressing coin. Hey, maybe that someone could be me!”
Thinking back to that first Google search back in 2010, Alex – now 70 – says, “That word ‘older’, placed in the search bar back in 2010, just brought up images of old people slumped in chairs in care homes. I was stunned. Of course there are people in care homes – but that’s only one part of the story about getting older, and maybe not even a very big part of it at that.
“I was also shocked to find that the ‘over 60s’ were so often considered to be one single group. I’m 70 now and in a very different place on the life-cycle to my mother, who’s 99. But we are both in the same ‘old’ category. Surely ‘ageing’ is a lot more nuanced and interesting than that?
“I thought my goodness, someone needs to show another side of this depressing coin. What could be a better way than putting the spotlight on the wonderfully vibrant sportsmen and women who continue to compete in the sport they love through their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s? Hey, and maybe that someone could be me!”
A new venture...
This thought carried a lot of weight for Alex – not only had she never practiced photography before, but she was yet to own a camera! However, with a background in visual culture, Alex felt she knew enough about the construction of images to create meaning. Her next step was to seek out a photography tutor to help her learn how to master her new camera.
But, it was after her first trip to a world event, photographing older sportsmen and women, that Alex learned why being a photographer is about more than simply being behind the camera. She says that it involves long hours of editing, and working out how to get your work seen by anyone.
She explains, “I thought this world of older elite sportsmen and women was incredible, and I had the photos to prove it. But how could I persuade anyone else to take a look and see for themselves how amazing it was? I didn’t have a platform. I couldn’t expect a gallery to invite me to host an exhibition. Any feelings of triumph I may have had when I came home with my first set of photos was pretty short-lived.”
To start with, Alex exhibited her work locally in Bristol. But now, some 10 years on, her exhibitions are more national and international in scale. She explains that getting to this point has required her to develop a whole new set of skills – in particular getting to grips with promoting her work, whether that be through social media, print, radio, or TV. Learning these skills was not something that she anticipated doing when she first started trying to make an impact with her work.
“I really appreciate how my work has opened up intergenerational relationships for me”
Looking back at her experience of starting a new career in her 60s, Alex tells us that it’s generally been very positive. One of the unexpected delights for her has been the way it has allowed her to form new friendships with people of all ages. She says, “My wonderful photography tutor – Rachel Sokal – was 25 when we started working together and I’ve also had help using video editing software from the equally wonderful Rupert Marlow, who was then in his 20s too.
“I’ve loved the time we’ve spent together and really appreciate how my work has opened up intergenerational relationships for me – I didn’t expect that and it’s truly a bonus. It keeps me ‘in touch’ and stops me from slipping into old-fogeydom!
“When it comes to actually taking the photos, I work with people around about the same age as me or older. There’s an acknowledgement, often hidden, that we all belong to the same community, that we inevitably understand each other as we’re all involved in our personal endeavours later in life.
“We respect each other and enjoy each other. I know how hard they train to do what they do in the sport they love. And they know how hard I work with my photography. I have made new friends – friends I meet at the events and/or follow on Facebook and also friends who are now very much part of my life. What an unexpected gift!”
“When you’re older, the assumption is that it’s ‘just a hobby’ for you because you don’t need to earn a living anymore. Older people are associated with hobbies and pastimes, not with work”
Alex tells us that one of the most difficult things about starting out as a freelance photographer later in life is that people don’t always see what she does as a profession or a career. Instead, the assumption is made that it must be a hobby.
She explains that the reality of this is that getting paid for her work can be a real struggle. And while Alex is sometimes happy to go without pay, for example, if she is supporting a particular charity or issue – the question ‘Do you get paid for what you do, or is it a hobby?” is one that she dislikes.
Alex continues, “I think this is an issue, irrespective of age, for anyone involved in the so-called creative industries. People ask to use your work, which they say they love, but claim they can’t pay you, adding however that you will ‘benefit from the exposure’ that they are going to give you. Ask any freelancer who’s a ‘creative’ and they will tell you how wearing this is.
“A factor that also comes in to further entrench this attitude when you’re older is the assumption that it’s ‘just a hobby’ for you because you don’t need to earn a living anymore. Older people are associated with hobbies and pastimes, not with work. And this, again, means you don’t need to be paid.
“But when I am at these sports events, trust me, I work 100% of the time and it’s exhausting. So does that make it a hobby? Now, after 10 years of hard graft, building up a small reputation in my field, I usually get paid for putting on exhibitions and for giving talks. But I also usually have to ask.”
Alex on how public speaking and writing have also become a big part of her work
Alongside her photography skills, Alex has also been developing her public speaking and writing skills, as this helps her to share both her images and to tell the individual life stories about the athletes she photographs. The longer she does the job, the better she gets to know her subjects, and the more involved in their stories she becomes. This means that she is able to share some of this information – where appropriate – alongside their photos.
She explains, “I write on my website and talk about the people I photograph as well as my experiences photographing them. As well as showing galleries of my pictures, I think it brings them to life. I hope so anyway. And I absolutely love public speaking and presenting my pictures to an audience, no matter what size. That’s when I can show a whole range of pictures and talk my way through them.
I love responding to people’s questions and noticing their amazement, which is just like mine was when I first saw these athletes in action. I talk to groups at conferences, at evening dinners, I’ve done virtual presentations on zoom – I love them all! Basically, I love meeting people and that’s what happens when you talk in public.”
Freelance photography - the best bits
When asked what she enjoys most about life as a freelance photographer, Alex exclaims, “All of it!” She says that this includes the travel, the relationships that she’s built with athletes, the excitement of sporting events, and the buzz she gets when she takes a new photo she’s proud of. She frequently travels for work, but her schedule also allows time for regular visits to see her grandchildren in Greece and Glasgow.
Outside of work, Alex is also an avid runner, swimmer, and gym goer – and has played a lot of competitive tennis throughout her life. She picked up running at the age of 63 after feeling inspired by the subjects in her photographs and has since run two 10K events, as well as taking part in a 5K park run every Saturday.
Alex explains that right now her running has “taken a dip for her hip” after finding out last December that she needs a hip replacement. But she hopes to return to running again as soon as she is able to.
Looking to the future, Alex plans to continue the work she is doing with Find it Film. Together with film-maker Danielle Sellwood, they are making a feature-length documentary on five British female master athletes, which is set to reach a wide audience.
She’s also looking forward to taking part in a couple of events that have been postponed due to the recent global pandemic. These include an exhibition put on by the World Health Organisation in Geneva to celebrate the launch of their ‘Decade of Healthy Ageing’ – where sixty of her two-metre tall photos are going to line the city centre quays along the lakeside – as well as an outdoor exhibition in another big city centre park in Bristol.
“Now is the time to do something that adds meaning to your life. It’s time enough to really find out who the authentic you is, the you who might have been hiding when you were trying to meet the needs of others or to deal with different constraints”
Alex’s journey has been a steep learning curve but it has also given her a new lease of life and she would like to encourage others who might be thinking about starting a new venture or career, to give it a go. She acknowledges that while it may not be easy, putting yourself out there and trying something new can offer big rewards.
She says, “I’d roll out that old slogan: If not now, when? Now is the time to do something that adds meaning to your life. Really think about stuff that matters to you and think about how you may be able to pitch in there, make a contribution and earn a living too. It’s not easy. But I do think that once you reach 50, it’s time enough to really find out who the authentic you is, the you who might have been hiding when you were trying to meet the needs of others or to deal with different constraints. And go for it.
“My experience has been that people will notice you when you’re involved with something you care about. There are lots of us doing loads of different things, but I’ve discovered a real sense of community amongst those of us who are driven by being passionate about whatever it is that we do. And this community crosses all age-groups. It’s truly intergenerational, and, to be honest, I’m having more fun than ever!”