Stories of a generation

This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald ‘Weekender’ magazine in print and online on June 18, 2022. Image: And Then Photograph Agency

Too often, the voices of older Australians are unheard. Melanie Muddle and Hannah Robinson, two local photographers, hope to help change this through a beautiful photo-storytelling project titled ‘And then, they were no longer invisible’.

A long-term program that “honours older people in our communities”, it features the stories and experiences of Australians aged 70 years and over.

“Through the sharing of their stories, we create space for new narratives around ageing, isolation and ageism,” explains Robinson.

The project will be shared through community-based, large-scale paste-up exhibitions and supported by digital storytelling via their online StoryBank.

The first instalment, which was completed between February and April of this year, featured elders from Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. Parts of which are currently exhibited in the East End Village.

Participants residing in Port Stephens and Raymond Terrace are their current focus, with the Central West region of New South Wales scheduled for late-2022. The project has been supported by crowdfunding and grants from Newcastle City Council, Octopod, and Lake Macquarie Council.

Robinson and Muddle are developing the project through And Then, the socially-minded photography agency they co-founded together, where they “collaborate and create with a community rather than for an audience”.

Muddle says this approach “empowers people to represent themselves, to participate as equals in the process of image-making, and to have a say in the ways these images are shared with audiences”.  It’s a philosophy they applied to ‘And then, they were no longer invisible’.

“It is a privilege to be invited into someone’s story sphere,” explains Robinson.

“We have loved spending time with participants listening to stories, sharing experiences, and supporting them to represent themselves and their stories in the way that they would like.”

“We’ve sat in their homes, shared cups of tea, and we have been moved by their generosity, their honesty, and vulnerability. We’ve both been challenged and changed through the connections this project has fostered.”

The positive impact ‘And then, they were no longer invisible’ has had on its subjects has been a highlight for Muddle and Robinson.

“Almost all of the participants in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie project didn’t believe that their stories were worthy of being included. Walking alongside them throughout the process and then seeing them stand at the exhibition with their families overcome by it all was truly humbling. It really made it all feel so worthwhile.”

The pair say they both valued the elders in their lives and felt drawn to sharing their stories and experiences. They observed that ageism tends to silence older generations with the pandemic further compounding this sense of social isolation and disconnection.

“A few years ago, on my grandfather’s 95th birthday, I asked him what it was like to be 95 years old,” says Muddle.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Melanie, people think that just because I’m old, I’m good for nothing. I hate this. There’s still so much that I can do, that I can contribute.’ I was deeply moved by his response and the conversation that ensued.”

“This is a sentiment that was shared across the project.”

Maree Callaghan, a 75-year-old participant in ‘And then, they were no longer invisible’, agrees.

“The elderly are vastly underutilised. There is an army of clever, capable people anxious to contribute to society – rather than just be babysitters for our children. We have all manner of talents, and need to be better utilised, also enhancing our own lives.”

“The over 65s do not have much of a voice. Despite comprising one-fifth of Australian voters, many regard the elderly as useless, this and like projects allow us to illustrate how we feel, our hopes, our losses, how we have overcome so much, to come out the other side.”

With COVID putting a stop to many of her usual activities, Callaghan says she was looking for a new project and something meaningful and cerebral to do.

“I ended up writing half of my life story for this project! It was also an opportunity to speak up for the elderly and raise some of our issues, hopefully promoting discussion.”

“In particular, I had been horrified at the way older people in aged care homes had been left encaged to acquire COVID, and how, during COVID, various groups marched in their thousands for increased wages, for climate change, against racism, for the right not to wear masks, whilst the elderly died in nursing homes, with no-one marching for these, our most vulnerable.”

“I wanted people to reflect on this. We need to have discussions on the way Australia outsources our caring responsibilities and discussions on better ways to house and care for our aged.”

The types of experiences highlighted by Callaghan, Muddle’s grandfather, and other participants in the project are supported by various research.

One report called ‘What’s age got to do with it?’ by the Australian Human Rights Commission, released in 2021, found that 90% of Australians agree that ageism exists, 83% agree it is a problem, and 63% say they have experienced it in the last five years. 

Initiatives such as ‘And then, they were no longer invisible’ are a small but important step towards giving our elders the voice, visibility, and respect they deserve.

Callaghan says she watched and heard people read the stories in the exhibition and say things like – “That is just like Nan”, “This story interests me”, and “I will go home and ask Mum if that happened to her” – so she believes the stories resonate.

“We were the generation that watched as women were beaten and the police did not come as ‘it is a matter between husband and wife’, and thus no crime was committed. We were the generation when gay young men had to hide their sexuality as it was a crime. The generation when women had to leave work when they married or if pregnant.”

“We could not get bank loans, no houses in our name, no maternity leave, no superannuation, no birth control, no Medicare, no vaccinations, no childcare, few career paths. And yet, we survived!”

 “I believe our stories can encourage the young.”

“This is the beginning of a big, beautiful project,” says Muddle. “We’re continuing to expand it, building a representative, Australia-wide bank of the stories and experiences of elders. We’d like to create an archival collection that enables images and stories to be shared with the generation to come.”