We had the opportunity to speak with photographer Sally Peterson, who has traveled extensively through Europe, Asia, Africa and South America to capture evocative portraits of both individual personalities and larger cultures — but one of her most fascinating projects, “Centenarians,” started closer to home, with a photograph of her grandmother, Cecil Peterson, at age 101.
As a group, centenarians currently make up just 0.02% of the U.S. population, while super-centenarians — those who live to be at least 110 — are even more unique, with just 350-400 estimated to be alive, world-wide.
Peterson’s photographs quietly draw out her subjects’ grace and wit, while giving a sense of their personal histories.
We recently sat down with her to discuss her work as a photographer and her experiences in making this series. Learn more about her compelling work with centenarians and supercentenarians.
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Sally Peterson: Growing up I had dyslexia and an auditory processing disorder, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was really pretty illiterate until I was about 10 years old, and even after that, I never felt at home with written language. In high school, I took a photography class, and as soon as that first image appeared, that was it for me.
APFM:Do you find yourself drawn to certain subject matter? How would you describe your visual style?
SP: I’m a highly social person — I love to be out and about chatting with people almost constantly — so it feels natural to me to make a lot of portraits. I also tend to search out offbeat subject matter. I like to photograph people who might otherwise not be seen or heard, people who feel forgotten.
That’s a big part of what inspired me to take on the Centenarians project — it was so surprising to me that there are all these people who’ve lived to be 100 or older. It’s not something we normally think about as we’re rushing around in our daily lives. We’re moving too fast to think about these people who have slowed down, but they have such fantastic stories.
In terms of style, I’ve spent a lot of time playing around with how to best capture emotions and communicate people’s larger stories through visual details.
APFM:What inspired you to make a portrait of your grandmother when she was 101? How did the series progress from there?
SP: My mom and dad weren’t really around during my childhood, so my grandmother was a huge source of support for me. I grew up really admiring her, and I wanted to make a final portrait of her before she passed. I ended up liking the photo so much that I asked her nursing home’s staff if anyone else over 100 lived there, and they connected me with a woman named Mary who was very excited to meet with me, tell me stories and have her picture taken. The photo of my grandmother was picked up by Adbuster Magazine, and after that, I started thinking about how cool it would be to photograph 100 people who’ve lived to be 100.
SP: In the beginning, it took a lot of work to get traction with the project. I’d spend a whole day doing research to find a single subject. I wouldn’t say people were especially wary, but many were surprised to hear from me. Later, after the early work got written up on Slate, and a few other places, and it just went haywire online. After that, people from all over the world started contacting me with potential subjects. That’s when things really took off. Suddenly, I was able to go to New York and shoot 20 people. It was almost overwhelming.
APFM:How many centenarians have you photographed so far? You’ve also made portraits of an impressive number of super-centenarians — how many?
SP: I’m almost done with the project! I’ve done about 90 portraits. I’d say about 10 of them are over 110.
APFM:As a portrait artist, how do you approach getting to the core of someone’s personality, or capturing the key elements of their story, in a relatively short amount of time? It seems like that would be a difficult thing to do.
SP: I’m actually on my way to photograph someone for the series as we speak. His son sent me a bunch of articles that have been written on him — it’s always great to be able to read through things like that. When I get there, I’ll chat with him for a bit, and work through a standard list of questions that I have. Then I’ll walk around his house, looking for the most interesting details I can find. For the actual shoot, I like to do an environmental shot, and then a tighter portrait. I like to have people look around, up and down, and I shoot a bunch, and at some point we’ll catch something that feels genuine and telling.
APFM:Has anything surprised you in the course of working on this project? Do you think making this series will affect your personal approach to aging?
SP: Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, but just the sheer range of differences between individual lives is striking. Some people are living at home on their own, some people are in nursing homes, some people have a lot of money, some people have little… I made some photographs in South America, where hundred-year-olds are still living in huts, growing gardens, grinding grains. One guy was up in the treetops rebuilding a roof.
I photographed a set of Louisiana sisters who had me over for lunch. We ate fried chicken and drank Big Gulps. Afterward, they were chewing tobacco and spitting it into cups. They’re not running races, but they’re very much actively participating in daily life.
For myself, I’m inspired to keep as active as I can, mentally and physically.
People who truly age well tend to have something that drives them, something that keeps them engaged.
For some it’s family or a sense of community, for some it’s passion projects like making art, or swimming, or heating their house with solar panels, but there’s always something.
SP: The book will include photos and nutshell biographies. I’m currently working on the manuscript and will start shopping it around with publishers soon. I also want to do some gallery shows, and am putting together booklets to start sending around.
APFM:What’s next for you?
SP: I’m not thinking much beyond wrapping up this project at this point — it’s grown to such epic proportions, it’s all I can do to stay on top of what I’ve currently got on my plate. After it wraps up, I’ll probably travel a bit… I’m thinking about going back to Japan, and I’d love to get to Italy this year, but I’m not sure if photo projects will come out of that. Meanwhile, I have all sorts of things I love to do when I’m not deep into a project — I love to build furniture, garden, redecorate my house, help one of my girlfriends who has a business making craft cocktails for events… I’ve got lots of interests.
SP: Oh yes, the crazy multitasking with the hobbies will make it work.
Sally Peterson lives in Los Angeles and takes photos all over the world. Current and past clients include Newsweek, Time Magazine, Fox Searchlight, the Wall Street Journal and many others. If you know of a centenarian she should photograph, she’d love to hear from you.
Do you know a centenarian? What have you learned most from them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.