Alex Rotas is a photographer, speaker and writer. She’s an activist on the active ageing front. She takes photographs of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond so that society can receive the idea that so much more is possible than the ageist media tropes allow for.
Where do you live?
I live in the UK in Bristol, a city I adore.
What do you do?
I’m a sports photographer who specialises in taking photos of sportsmen and women who still compete in national and international events through their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and, yes, 100s. I want to get people thinking again about what’s possible I later life!
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
My overwhelming feeling is one of relief. I’ve given up feeling driven: to perform, to achieve, to be relentlessly busy. These were all things I felt I had to do and to be in my younger decades.
I’ve stopped being a perfectionist and I’m grateful for the lessons my body has taught me in that regard. Things go wrong: for example, I had a new hip in 2020, and it felt like a catastrophe at the time. I thought I was starting from scratch again and I saw it as an obstacle I’d never get over. And then I met, and photographed, a track and field athlete in her 60s who was competing in a hurdles event, some 18 months after she’d had her second hip replaced. Just watching her and talking to her made me completely re-think my tendency to default into catastrophiser mode.
Inevitably too, I’ve learned that as you put one thing right, something else crops up. To my surprise, I’ve discovered that this too is okay. I’ve learned that life goes on and in the process, I’ve ditched being a catastrophiser. You adapt and you muddle on. I’ve had this lesson repeated to me over and over, watching and getting to know all the elite, older athletes I photograph. They are forever dealing with injuries, not to mention the more major illnesses and bereavements that none of us can escape if we live long lives. They do what they need to do and they look to the other side, motivated by getting back to the sport and community they love.
I’m a late learner and it’s taken me a long time to learn these basic lessons that had nonetheless passed me by. I feel so lucky and grateful to have lived long enough to get this chance of re-thinking this very unhelpful tendency of mine, the catastrophising one, and chucking it out.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
Peace of mind; self-acceptance; gratitude; contentment. I wouldn’t go back to being 25 for anything!
What about sex?
Sorry, but what about sex?
If, by ‘relationships’, you mean all the connections and friendships we have with our fellow human beings, I have more of these than I’ve ever had before. I’ve learned, again late in life, how wonderful it is to trust and be trusted, and to share our vulnerabilities with each other. I had a whole armoury of defence mechanisms in place when I was in my 30s, 40s and 50s, defence mechanisms that got in the way, I now realise, of making joyful and meaningful connections. All the research around ‘ageing successfully’ tells us it’s the human relationships we have in our lives and the social connections, big and small, that we make that are key to living happily as we get older. I’m so grateful to now have so many truly lovely people in my life.
How free do you feel?
Very! In fact, I’ve probably taken Helen Mirren’s words to heart slightly too literally. She said she wished she could have told her younger self to say “F*** Off!” more frequently. She’s so right and I can absolutely vouch for just how satisfying it is to say this, if not frequently, but when the moment arises. (I should add that I think it’s a reaction to the training so many women of my generation had to be ‘people pleasers’ that make this a significant lesson for us, rather than a gratuitous licence simply to be rude.)
In general, I’m freer than I’ve ever been in my entire life, in that I have no obligations to tie me down. So I can do whatever my heart, and my bank balance, allow.
What are you proud of?
I’m most proud of the relationships I have with my adult children. I come from a family with, I think it’s fair to say, a dysfunctional background so this not something any of us would take for granted. It’s been a source of constant delight and wonder to me to feel now that we all love and respect each other, and what’s more enjoy each other’s company too. It’s been very hard-earned and I’m so proud we got there.
I’m also proud of my different efforts throughout my life to have worked in different fields that have felt important to me. Currently I’m really enjoying using my photography to try to shift some of the lazy ageist stereotypes that circulate in our society and culture around the subject of older age. It’s hard to look at an image of someone in their 80s and 90s competing in a high jump or pole vault competition, for example, and to hang on to an insistence that getting older inevitably means being confined to a sedentary and miserable life-style. We all have to adapt, of course, and the elite older athletes I photograph certainly change their training regimens as they progress through the decades. But they don’t stop and we don’t have to either.
What keeps you inspired?
The people I photograph and from whom I continue to learn so much and who often end up becoming friends. I’m continually inspired too as I discover new (to me) sports, their communities of devotees and the talents and skills of the participants. I love learning too about the supportive communities each sport and indeed age group builds up. These are people who are there for each other through the inevitable ups and downs of life, both inside and outside of their sport. It’s made me realise that being part of a community of people who enjoy what you enjoy doing is another fundamental key to living a happy life, whatever your age.
And my grandchildren never cease to inspire me that maybe there really is hope for the future.
When are you happiest?
I’m always happy when I’m with people I like and/or admire, hearing their stories and learning about their lives. I love it when we feel safe together and able to share our ups and downs. I also get a massive rush of joy the moment I put on my high-vis yellow jacket and step sports-side with my camera; whether it’s an athletics track, a sports field, a swimming pool or a cycling velodrome, each one feels like a Happy Place to me. And then I’m excited by the prospect of trying to do my best to capture the sportsmen and women in action.
I’m beyond-happy, needless to say, when I’m with my children and my grandchildren and marvelling as this newest generation develops into unique and fascinating human beings. Heaven.
And where does your creativity go?
My creativity goes into my photography. I love trying to capture action shots of remarkable older sportsmen and women who are still giving their all. We tend to associate sport with youth, so I love the surprise element in photographing this older age group and then showing my photos to a new audience. I want to capture the athleticism and also the faces of the competitors, so you get to see their extraordinary physicality as well as their age, plus their focus, determination and, so very often, their joy.
I don’t photoshop my images but I do play around with the crop in order to achieve maximum impact. I enjoy this post-production process very much, sitting at my computer and reliving whatever event it is that I photographed. And I love it when people are surprised and happy with my images when they eventually see them. When I’ve been lucky enough to have exhibitions, especially exhibitions in public places, I get a huge kick out of seeing viewers of all ages smile in surprise and talk to each other as they take in each picture: it’s almost as though you can see their perceptions of what ‘old age’ is all about visibly changing as they look at the images.
What’s your philosophy of living?
I used to be a planner. I’d try to plan everything and generally micro-manage my life. Since I gave that up, I’ve been immeasurably happier. For me now, I try to keep my schedule as baggy as I can so I’m able to do what I want to do but also have room to adapt and respond to changing circumstances and opportunities. I’m much more easy-going than I used to be and I’m finding it a lot more fun than being up-tight and trying to stay in control of everything. Who knew? I’m a late learner as I keep saying, so I can only be grateful I’ve lived long enough to have this lesson too rubbed into me.
More of the above, really. I’m more careful physically than I used to be, in that I don’t race up and down the steep stairs of my house in the way that I once did, to take an example. But basically, I’ve accepted that I’m very unlikely to have much control over when or where I die and I’d like to be remembered fondly, even with love, in as much as I’m remembered at all. So it’s my relationships that matter to me more than ever. I don’t want to leave the good things unsaid and I don’t want to die with regrets.
Are you still dreaming?
Oh yes. I constantly dream of the next time I’ll see my children and grandchildren and I look forward to all my trips, whether it’s to visit them, see friends or to photograph some new sporting event. I feel very lucky indeed with the life I have and very content.
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
Probably telling a particular individual to (see above) “F*** Off!” It was a deeply satisfying moment and I have no regrets about it whatsoever. So thank you, Helen Mirren!
You can see some of her work here – https://alexrotasphotography.co.uk/