I’m absolutely over the moon to have my first outdoor exhibition, No Limits, now open to the public in central Bristol. It runs through August on College Green, just outside the Council offices at the bottom of Park Street. It couldn’t be a more ideal spot. It’s there thanks to the efforts of Karen Lloyd, indefatigable manager of Active Ageing Bristol, with whom No Limits, is a collaborative project. To have my photos in a public space in such a prime city location ticks so many boxes in terms of what I’m aiming to achieve in my work.
First of all, this is an incredibly busy pedestrian thoroughfare with a very heavy footfall. It’s outside the Council offices, a place that employs over a thousand employees. On sunny days (and it is August, so there should be a few) people sit on the grass and eat their lunch there – it’s a green amenity right in the hub of the city. There are bus stops just alongside and Park Street itself is always busy with cars and pedestrians. So what I like is that people walking through the Green, or on the pavement alongside it, are taken by surprise by the exhibition; they may be walking from A to B, or grabbing a coffee and a sandwich, but the big stands with the pictures are unmissable for them to see.
Galleries aren’t always places where everyone feels comfortable. So I love the fact that this exhibition is simply ‘there’ – you don’t have to decide to go (although you can of course make a special visit). It will catch you unawares, as it were, while you’re on your way somewhere else. And it’s a show about ‘old people’ – not a topic that everyone might be drawn to if it were in a dedicated space and you had to make a decision to go and visit. Now what I’m enjoying seeing is the number of families and young people, including children – precisely the people who I suspect might not be drawn to such an exhibition if it were described to them – who stop to look at the pictures and then chat about them.
This is an exhibition which I hope will bring pleasure and make people smile, but it’s also a show with a public health message. There are some 30 images mounted on giant weatherproof frames, mainly of masters athletes in their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 100+. These are elite sportsmen and women who still compete in track and field events on the world stage, right through the years that are designated as ‘elderly’. However they are not elderly in any negative sense: they sprint, they run long distances and they hurl javelins, shot puts and weights as well as themselves over impossible distances and heights. They are joyful, empowered, focused and determined; in their prime irrespective of their age. They show what the ageing human body is capable of – and it’s a lot more than most people think.
My overarching aim then is to challenge some of the dreary misconceptions about ageing that circulate in our society: that it’s a time of narrowing horizons, of passivity and dependence and of inevitable frailty. I don’t think it’s possible to look at what these masters athletes do and for that preconception to remain intact.
However working with Active Ageing Bristol, for whom I’m proud to be an ambassador, we wanted to do two things. Firstly we wanted to show images of elite older athletes, for whom there are clearly No Limitsas to what they can do. And secondly we wanted to showcase some of the grassroots activities available in Bristol for older people who want to make a start on getting active. These are people towards the other end of the activity/sports spectrum.
So there are also images of local walking football, of a tai chi group, of a climbing wall that offers tuition to seniors and of a local parkrun. Karen and I didn’t want people looking at the images to think that what they were seeing were superhumans whose achievements bore no relation to what they themselves might do. Our other message is that there are No Limitsto the age at which you can take up something new, nor to the fun that you might have doing so.
As photographer, what shines through whenever I’m taking pictures of group activities, whether on the elite level or the grass-roots one, is that the same joy and the same camaraderie always shines through. And this is a very important message we wanted to get across.
We all know that increased longevity means we’re predicted to live longer lives. But unless we do something about it, at the moment the prediction isn’t for us to lead healthierlonger lives. Younger people too need to get the message: growing old isn’t necessarily the gloomy prospect that so many fear. It can be a time of new opportunities, of growth, of widening horizons; a time to set new challenges and goals. But we need to take ownership of our wellbeing and our fitness as much as we can. And public health bodies need to provide opportunities and incentives to encourage us to live healthy, active lifestyles and to maintain them throughout the life-span.
So if you’re in Bristol please come and see the exhibition. You can sit on the grass too afterwards, if you pick a nice day, and enjoy your coffee and lunch as a bonus. No opening hours to worry about either: it’s there 24/7, free for anyone and everyone to see.