Seen and heard at 60

Visible: 60 women at 60 photographer Jenny O'Connor (third from the left) with three Manawatu women that posed for her. ...
Jenny O'Connor

Visible: 60 women at 60 photographer Jenny O'Connor (third from the left) with three Manawatu women that posed for her. from Left: Carol Searle, Irene Murphy and Di Glennie.

Jenny O'Connor has made 60 women at 60 anything but invisible. Carly Thomas found out how her milestone made a mountain of creative empowerment happen.

Looking straight down the lens, 60 women gaze out of their portraits. They are powerful, strong and they are unflinching.

These women are mothers, wives, lovers, professionals, introverts, extroverts and livers of life. These women are 60 and they have something to say and a story or two to tell.

A self portrait by photographer Jenny O'Connor from her Te Manawa exhibition of Visible: 60 women at 60.
Jenny O'Connor

A self portrait by photographer Jenny O'Connor from her Te Manawa exhibition of Visible: 60 women at 60.

Jenny O'Connor is the writer and photographer who put all of these women on the wall and between the covers of her book Visible: 60 women at 60, but it wasn't really something she planned.

It began four years ago, O'Connor was turning 60 and she was feeling reflective. She was questioning the transition and it got her thinking, listening, photographing and writing about the milestone. Rather than turn away from it she turned towards it.

"Leading up to that birthday, I started really thinking and reflecting back.There is a sense of feeling a lot more certain about lots of things, about who I am, but also I got that sense that ahead there is a lot of uncertainty."

Carol Searle's portrait in Visible: 60 Women at 60
Jenny O'Connor

Carol Searle's portrait in Visible: 60 Women at 60

O'Connor talked to other women about the experience and she began to collect their portraits, but the intention to write a book she says, was not there to begin with.

"We would sit down for about an hour before and talk about what they wanted to say about themselves. We started to share our stories and our reflections on our past and our generation and what we fought for. Those stories really started to come out and that was when I decided to do the book. So the women had the opportunity to write as much or as little as they wanted to about why they chose to portray themselves in the portrait they way they did at this stage in their lives."

O'Connor didn't actively seek out women, but instead let word of mouth do the leg work. Tentative emails and phone calls followed from people who were born in 1952 and the number of women looking down the barrel of O'Connor's lens and swapping stories over a cuppa or a glass of wine grew.

Irene Murphy's portrait in Visible: 60 Women at 60.
Jenny O'Connor

Irene Murphy's portrait in Visible: 60 Women at 60.

"When I thought of this idea I decided that I wasn't going to approach women. And the reason I decided to that was that I didn't want this to be about people who are well known. It's my belief that we are all stars and so the response I get is that they just love the 'every dayness'. The story is about every day women."

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What also came through, and what really bowled her over, was strength. That, and the sheer resilience of women.

"And what most of us have gone through and sometimes those were secrets that had remained secrets for a long, long time. There are women here who have gone through all sorts of experiences. There's a whole gamut of stories but the sheer guts and resilience of women to plough through just about every obstacle that faces them comes through."

Jen Haddon's portrait in Visible: 60 Women at 60
Jenny O'Connor

Jen Haddon's portrait in Visible: 60 Women at 60

The book launch was an amazing gathering says O'Connor and it "clearly resonated with people". It got her thinking again, and led to an exhibition of the portraits.

There was a deliberate approach O'Connor took to the way in which she photographed the women. While the style and idea behind how they were portrayed was in the hands of the subject, there were two things O'Connor held firm to; they had to look directly at the camera for the "power of direct engagement" and the photographs would be full-length.

"It's about the physical changes that go on in life and we get to a point in our life where we have to accept that our bodies have changed. So, it's not about hiding any of that. It was just about saying, it's us in our entirety, from the tips of our toes to the tops of our heads."

There is no photoshop and no botox here. These women are fronting up with all their quirks and they are doing it honestly, "some even took their clothes off" laughs O'Connor.

The photographs show connection, self assurance, humour, beauty and knowledge. They show the shared experience of women reaching 60, having got there in many different ways. And it doesn't stop there, forget "over the hill" for these women, they are getting up on the stage instead.

Stepping out at 60 was the next manifestation from this group of women. A stage show that puts forward 10 of the 60 and gives them six minutes to tell their story. O'Connor never really knows what those stories will be and that she says it is one of the wonderful things about the show, "they have a lifetime of experience to draw on".

"It's done in conjunction with an exhibition, so that's the only time we put it on. It makes me all tingly just thinking about it, they get up and tell people what their journey was to get to being this person in this photograph. I leave it completely up to them and it comes back to me relinquishing control and thinking, 'no, I'm just going to let this evolve'. It was a conscious decision to let it be really quite organic and it's part of the trust that comes with maturity."

The Palmerston North show will be held at the Globe Theatre and will feature four local women, Carol Searle, Jen Haddon, Irene Murphy and Di Glennie. Haddon was the most recent photograph taken and O'Connor said as with many of the subjects, it was just a chance encounter.

"She was at the Cross Hills [Country] Fair in the wet and pouring rain and she came up to me and said that her and her three sisters were all moving into their 60's. So I ended up photographing her sister and then Jen and I messed around for a whole year and only got around to taking her photo in July."

Her story will be one of ten when she steps out onto the stage, but it will also be one that is uniquely her own. She will offer it to the audience in a moment that her yearshave brought her to, and as O'Connor says, there is "a sheer power in that" and it's one that is ready to be shared.

Visible: 60 Women at 60 is being exhibited at Palmerston North's Te Manawa until November 6 and Stepping out at 60 will be staged at the Globe Theatre on October 1. For more information go to www-visibleat60-com.

 - Stuff

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