Getting old: For most of us, that's a scary thought.
No one wants to change that reaction more than photographer Heidi Wagner.
"There's such a gap between what's reality and what aging looks like," she says, "and you know, kind of this narrative that we get fed that we should all fear aging and aging is something that isn't revered and respected in our culture, in American culture."
Using photography to document the creativity of older people engaging in artistic pursuits or "passions," she's made it her mission to dispute that narrative. The result is an ongoing collection of portraits called The Passions Project, and the latest edition of the series is now at the Lakewood Cultural Center, helping to kick off the city's INSPIRE Arts Week.
Created in collaboration with local partners and with support from the city, The Passions Project - Lakewood comprises photos of twenty local citizens creating music, art and relationships — and experiencing joy in doing so. Living a life fully engaged with your passions is a core tenet of Wagner's personal philosophy.
"I think engagement isn't...necessarily just something that we need to consider when we're talking about older adults," she says. "I think the more we're engaged in our lives in general, the more we're connected to our passion. No matter what age we are, our life becomes more timeless. We're not thinking of all the pieces of life that aren't coming together; we're in a space where we're connecting with self, we're connecting with a really interesting and vibrant part of ourself.
"I think that anytime we live with vibrance, no matter what age we are, we are absolutely more interesting humans to be around," she adds.
Wagner began to connect those views with her photography while working in a senior living facility in Boulder in 2011, capturing residents at their most engaged. "I didn't necessarily call it The Passions Project at first," she recalls. "I would ask people the simple question, 'What's your passion?'"
Since then, she's created several installments of the project, and changing the representation of seniors remains central to her work. "We're either looking at pictures of older adults...in this medical way," she says, "or we're looking at them in this way of 'Oh, my gosh! They have to be jumping out of airplanes and competing in triathalons.' There's not a lot of in between."
She wants to capture not just her subjects, but the diversity of their communities.
"It's not just the people," she says. "Really, it's their stories, too. We're really trying to be representative of the people of Lakewood. What do the people of Lakewood look like?" To answer that question, she considered a wide range of factors, including gender identity, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. "We want to make sure that all of those pieces are represented when we're talking about older adults of the community of Lakewood," she explains.
Doing so required a lengthy audition process, during which she worked closely with the city as well as other local stakeholders, including Philip Shapiro, co-owner and founder of the Village at Belmar Senior Living Community.
"Phil Shapiro has been a really big advocate and hero...for the Lakewood project," she says. "They wanted to highlight the citizens of Lakewood, and I just really appreciate them seeing the value of amplifying the voices and stories of older adults."
Shapiro is a big admirer of the project and its results. Having spent much of his career working with seniors, he appreciates that the series addresses our cultural perception of getting older, pushing back against ageism and reinventing presentations of aging. "It's stupendous," he says. "The photos resonate the positive aura of seniors expressing their passions and exude self-esteem and a sense of positive aging."
Shapiro and Wagner will join a panel of other aging experts to discuss the project, ageism and related issues at a free opening reception on Friday, June 2.
"It's so important to honor and respect our aging population. We have much to learn from them about the aging process," says Shapiro, adding that he hopes the display "will spark younger generational viewers to want to call their parents or grandparents and embrace and acknowledge them as being important people in their lives."
The Passions Project - Lakewood is on display from Friday, May 26, through August 31 at the Lakewood Cultural Center Corner Gallery, 470 South Allison Parkway. The opening Reception is at 6 p.m., Friday, June 2; get tickets at eventbrite.