Photographer ‘faces future’ with portraits of centenarians

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

The idea of getting old scares most of us. We don’t want to think about getting wrinkles, becoming bedridden or succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. Still, we must come to terms with the fact that growing old is a reality for all of us lucky enough to live long lives.

German photographer Karsten Thormaehlen, 48, has taken up the theme of aging, notably with photographs of centenarians in Germany, Italy and Japan.

After holding exhibitions on centenarians throughout Europe, he published the book “Happy at Hundred” in 2011.

“People who have seen the exhibition walk off and (I think) they’ve learned something,” Thormaehlen said.

Thormaehlen said his goal as a photographer is to show an artistic view of life in old age, and make people think about it.

“The people had a chance to take a deep look into their own future, and they think they better deal with it in a positive way than in a negative way,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re going to be depressed today and for the rest of their lives, and that’s very bad.”

“Each decade has its own beauty, its own goals, targets and (people) are old only from the view of the younger people.”

Thormaehlen took his first photos of centenarians in his home country, Germany, before moving on to Italy. The Japanese are his most recent subject.

In Italy, he visited the island of Sardinia, where a family of the world’s oldest brothers and sisters live. The total age of the nine siblings adds up to 827. The eldest is 105.

Aware that Japan is one of the fastest aging societies in the world (Japanese women have the longest average life span at 86), he visited for eight days in July and took photos of eight centenarians in Nagoya and Tokyo. Heading the list was renowned terminal care physician Shigeaki Hinohara, 101, chairman of the board of trustees at St. Luke’s International Hospital and St. Luke’s College of Nursing in Tokyo.

Many centenarians, Thormaehlen noted, are still very active in their communities. Hinohara gives lectures while others pursue such hobbies as knitting or tai chi.

Thormaehlen says the trip to Japan was a trial run and that he intends to come back to take more photos and also make a video.

“I intend to come back with a Hollywood crew,” he said with a smile.

Thormaehlen was inspired to come to Japan following a chance encounter with Masatada Araki, a former engineer from Handa, Aichi Prefecture, in Berlin.

Discovering Thormaehlen’s passion for centenarians, Araki offered to help him place an article in Nagoya’s Chunichi Shimbun daily in July asking seniors in the area to come forward if they were interested in being photographed.

Almost immediately they received about 10 phone calls, and Thormaehlen decided to fly to Japan to meet and photograph some of the respondents. Araki arranged several meetings with centenarians in Tokyo, too.

An ad photographer, Thormaehlen has worked for nearly a decade as an art director for cosmetics companies and was also a photographer in New York for five years.

He started shooting centenarians as a personal project in 2006. The idea of documenting them came from his experience working at an old people’s home.

“I felt sorry for these old people, just sitting there and waiting to die. It’s not what you work all your life for — to have an end like this,” he said.

He said that the turning point came in 2006, when he saw a photo in a newspaper of a man who had turned 100 holding a glass of wine and looking happy.

“I thought, ‘OK, there are other people who turn 100, and are happy and still living at home,’ ” he said.

Thormaehlen looked into whether any photographers or artists had taken up the subject of centenarians.

In Germany, he found that there were almost none. In fact, only one book on the subject had been published in the past 20 years.

He also found out that publishers shied away from the subject, assuming such books wouldn’t sell.

But after holding successful exhibitions in Austria, Germany and Switzerland in 2008, he said that “something changed,” and a publisher offered to market his picture book.

“A lot of the centenarians have experienced war, or the death of someone close to them. There’s a commonality in all the centenarians I’ve met. Nobody is aggressive. They are friendly, and have wisdom. Some of them have a particular kind of sense of humor. It’s really fun to work with centenarians,” he said.

“On the surface, you only see wrinkles, but in the eyes and in the whole gesture, there’s beauty. That beauty comes from the inside, and radiates outside.”