In 1997, photojournalist Ed Kashi and his wife, writer Julie Winokur, set out to document the aging process and challenge attitudes about aging. The first part of the project was a series on aging prisoners in America that was published in "The New York Times Magazine.” The project took Kashi and Winokur to across the country to document America’s aging population.
The Longboat Observer sat down with Kashi, whose exhibit, “Aging in America: Challenging Our Attitudes” runs through Thursday, Dec. 3, at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design.
Did the seven years that you spent on the project change your perspective on aging?
Hugely. It not only changed my perspective, but it caused us to make different decisions on a personal level. For us, it meant moving 3,000 miles from San Francisco to New Jersey to care for my father-in-law. Before I started this, I might have suggested an assisted living facility. Instead, I thought, “We have to come home.” It’s unbelievable to me how much we warehouse our elders.
The exhibit features the elderly in places such as nursing homes and hospitals and doing things such as riding motorcycles and exotic dancing. Were you surprised by the diversity you found?
The last century gave us this gift of longevity, approximately 30 extra years. What I wanted to show was, how are people using it? For some it means 30 more years of robust living. For others, it means living in a very compromised position. And there are also more than two sides to it.
Do you have a favorite photograph in the exhibit?
That’s like picking your favorite child. But one picture that has incredible meaning is “Death of Maxine.” (The photograph features a woman on her deathbed surrounded by family members and hospice as part of a photo series on rural hospice care.)
It’s the way she’s disappearing in the frame. There’s something magical about that. … This project removed me of any cynicism I had about American life. It showed me how many good people do good things every day.
You discussed the way Americans warehouse their elders. That doesn’t make you cynical?
That doesn’t make me cynical. It pisses me off. It makes me angry, and it’s scary.
Do you think America is equipped to handle an aging population?
Absolutely not. We almost need to form a Care Corps, like a VISTA or a Peace Corps.
Are you still adding to the “Aging in America” project?
We’re not deliberately pursuing it. But it’s something I will always be connected to in some way. For example, Civic Ventures awards the “Purpose Prizes” of 10 grants of $50,000 to $100,000 to people over age 60 who are doing great things. Civic Ventures contacted us (Talking Eyes Media, a non-profit multimedia company Kashi and Winokur founded) to do short documentaries about each winner. … Funding is always an issue, but I would love to do it on an international level, or maybe “Aging in America II,” maybe five, 10 years from now.
What would “Aging in America” look like five to 10 years from now?
On the positive side, we would learn about many more innovative programs. … Also I think that we would discover a lot of people in distress and possibly migration of people from rural areas.
Has the project made you think, personally, about what it’s like to grow old?
It’s made me much more conscious of my own aging. I’ve witnessed four deaths. I had to stop doing it. I’ve always taken care of myself, but it’s made me more conscious about exercise, about how I eat, about taking care of myself.
Contact Robin Hartill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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