Capturing the power and passion of women aged 50 and over

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When Melbourne photographer Gray Tham called a group of women to pitch the idea of a show to help others aged over 50 understand their value, she got a glimpse of why her project was still needed.

Many doubted that other women in midlife would want to talk about themselves, or would think they had a story worth telling.

Melbourne portrait photographer, Gray Tham, with subjects Mariam Issa and Kerryn Harvey, sets out to show the contributions of women aged 50 and over.Credit: Simon Schluter

Having absorbed messages about women past their fertile prime being less relevant in public discourse, and generally, some who wanted to get involved replied to her: “Gray I want to do your project, but I have nothing worthy to share.”

“The more I went into it, the more passionate I became about proving to women their life is far from over after 50, these can be the most powerful years of our lives,” says Tham, 51, who converted the beginnings of a “midlife crisis” in her late 40s into the idea for her project.

Although many of Australia’s most influential businesspeople are women over 50 – including new Qantas CEO, Vanessa Hudson, 53, Macquarie Group chief executive, Shemara Wikramanayake, 61, and Tesla chair, Robyn Denholm, 60 – “everyday” women told her they could feel a loss of value, visibility and self-worth.

Gray Tham’s portrait of world triathlete, turned personal trainer, Kerryn Harvey, who lost an arm to necrotising fasciitis bacteria after a bike accident 10 years ago.Credit: Gray Tham

“A lot of the women that I interviewed do feel they’ve become invisible once they’ve done the raising of their children,” said Tham, “though the tide is changing a bit – many are now wearing their grey hair with pride – but there’s still so much further we have to go.”

Celebrities including Naomi Watts and Gwyneth Paltrow have jumped on the trend towards spotlighting ageing issues such as menopause. Tham set out to show how the ordinary stories of the 74 subjects she found through local connections and word of mouth captured the extraordinary vitality of older women and the important roles they played across the community.

Tham did not have to look far for inspiration; one of her first subjects was her running trainer, Kerryn Harvey, 57.

Harvey, from Melbourne, was on a cycling trip in Adelaide 10 years ago when she found herself fighting for life 30 hours after a minor accident. She needed emergency surgery for necrotising fasciitis (more commonly known as “flesh eating” bacterial disease), in which she lost an arm and shoulder.

Harvey spent three months in hospital, and left with “not one muscle in my body”. “My fitness was a minus 10,” she says. After two years in rehabilitation, and rebuilding her strength, she did her first paratriathlon aged 49.

Harvey won her first world championship at 50 and says the value in Tham’s project lies in showing women they have what it takes to reinvent themselves in whatever forum they choose.

“I’d like women over 50 to have the self-confidence to just go out and create big hairy goals and achieve them, and don’t be held back by what anyone else thinks or says,” says Harvey. “I want women to have the self-belief to just get out and live the life they want to do.”

Tham found another of her subjects, Somalian born former-refugee Mariam Issa, via a workshop she attended in Issa’s open garden in Brighton.

Issa, her husband and four children, fled war in Somalia and spent eight years displaced before migrating to Melbourne at the age of 30. She overcame a decade’s worth of depression, and formed a strong network by starting a community garden and holding workshops and women’s groups in it.

Gray Tham (centre), with two of the subjects in her book and exhibition about women over 50.Credit: Simon Schluter

Tham’s exhibition – on from November 9 to 12 in Hawthorn – and the book she has made from it, 50 & Wiser Club, demonstrated women’s value as elders, she said.

“It is taking back the narrative and erasing stigmas around women [ageing] and supporting women to recognise their incredible ability,” Issa said.

Proceeds from the show and events around it will be donated to the Go Girls Foundation, which supports women experiencing unemployment, family violence, breast cancer and isolation after migration.

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