Successful ageing and free stock images


Golden Age Models at Stockholm Beauty Week. Photo: Daniel Söderberg

The recent cover for Sports Illustrated featuring Martha Stewart, aged 81, in a swimsuit and looking like a twenty-year-old has sparked a controversy. Whether she has had 'work' done  - she says no, of course -  whether it was the outcome of clever photoshopping, good lighting, or maybe an AI-generated image, the point is that the message was skewed. You are praised for ageing well if you manage to look young. You are a role model if you manage to look young. 

It's called 'successful ageing'.  The younger you manage to look, the more successful you are at ageing, that seems to be the conclusion one can draw from this and related incidents. Some people thought that the Martha Stewart cover was wonderful because someone older was being represented. I feel it was a kick in the teeth.   'Shape up' or else, was the message. We are only interested in older women if they do not look their age and act to prevent signs of ageing from being detected.

The fashion industry ignores older men and women, especially women. Whenever you see an older model at some runway show, or in a beauty campaign it is blatantly tokenistic. Having said that, I have just returned from Stockholm, where I took part in a runway show for Stockholm Beauty Week, a whole-day affair where we even modelled swimsuits. All the models were  50 +, all represented by Golden Age Models, an agency started a year ago by the very dynamic Shama Persson, who is also a model,  in partnership with a few other women and men who felt they needed to change the conversation about ageing in Scandinavian countries. I am on their roster even though I am in London, also represented by Grey Model Agency, with whom I have been since it began. It was important that Golden Age Models should be at Beauty Week. Ours was a distinctive presence, all of us proud of our age, not attempting to look younger, but still looking aspirational. 

As I said in an earlier post ageism is not taken very seriously. I even got a comment from one of my readers - unfortunately I deleted it by mistake - the gist of which was that frankly, with all the problems we are facing at the moment,  a concern with ageism is quite trivial. I do not think it is. Ageism is a major issue in our society, we expect older folks to be productive, yet we treat them as invisible.

There are of course people who are really trying hard to change perceptions of age, advocating greater inclusivity. Some initiatives are, however, not so well thought out. Ageism is Never in Style is a campaign started by Jacynth Bassett, a young woman who  also owns The Bias-Cut , an online boutique that caters for older customers. Bassett has been very vocal about ageism and has earned accolades as a trailblazer; no other clothing boutique, apparently, pays any attention to older women. Recently, she has partnered with the Centre for Ageing Better, a non-profit set up to challenge ageism  through varied initiatives. The Centre  has started an age-positive library of  images free to download for use by journalists, brands and anyone who needs an image of older people  "in a bid to challenge negative and stereotypical views of older age". Bassett has been very proactive in setting up an editorial style  photoshoot.  It's all very well, but I cannot help being mildly concerned. The people who have posed for these editorial images have given away their rights over such images for life. Whenever their image is used, they will not receive any money at all. Brands will use such imagery for free instead of hiring and paying for models.

 I do not think this is a very good way of fighting ageism, the people who have modelled for those images will be robbed of earnings. I have experienced it on my skin. When I first began modelling - I was already in my late forties - I posed for stock images. Those photos still turn up to haunt me. I was booking a flight, and there I was, all smiles, the airline had used one of my earlier photos to advertise some special offer. I was paid for a few hours of work when we did the shoot but I have absolutely no say on how the images are going to be used and by whom. When we model, the right to use the images is carefully negotiated, usually by our agents, there are buy-outs and images cannot be used for more than a certain number of years. Models are paid for the usage. This does not happen with stock images, clients pay the library eg Getty and others, to use images.

The library of the Centre for Ageing Better gives images away for free. There is nothing to stop a major brand from obtaining images and use them in a campaign. Who is empowered by that? There are other ways to achieve better representation of older women and men in the media. Free stock images are not the answer. At the very least, their usage should be regulated.