Photographer Laura Zalenga Is Learning to Listen
When Laura Zalenga set out to document the beauty of age, it was a drastic departure from her comfort zone. The German fashion and art photographer is best known for her hyper-composed and meticulously composited portraiture—often self-portraits with mystical or fairy-tale elements and youthful subject matter.
“I wanted to discover the visible and invisible beauty of age,” says Zalenga. “I’m not searching for beauty queens with wrinkles. It’s the aura that a face has, a glimpse in the eyes, that shows beauty only when you connect it to their story. I really wanted to make that connection, because it’s their story that reveals the inner beauty.”
Six months in, after hundreds of interview hours and thousands of images, Zalenga says the project is coming into focus—with some tough lessons learned along the way.
LEARNING TO LISTEN
“Giving up control was the biggest thing I learned,” says Zalenga. “Usually, my images are 100 percent in my control: the concept, models, the image, the location. My portfolio is very intentional and composed; I arrange everything.”
“But for this project,” she explains, “it’s not in my control. You’re trying to capture instead of create. When I arrive they might be sitting on a couch in the living room, and when I leave they are sitting on the same couch. In the beginning it was really hard, but what I’m learning is to deal with them being in their own landscape, rather than put them into some composed landscape, because that would be my story, not their story.”
For this project, Zalenga’s process is simple: She meets with each subject in the natural environment of their home and asks them to share the most important memories of their life. Then she listens.
In other portrait work, Zalenga spends about half her time understanding a person’s story, and then half her time making images. “But for this process of collecting, it’s 90 percent story and 10 percent images, because I often sit and listen for 4 hours, and then take pictures for 15 minutes at the end.”
Zalenga draws on the interviewing skills she gained while working on a previous project, 1001 Strangers.
“Just being silent and listening is not the easiest thing,” says Zalenga. “Coming from such a fast world where people want a one-sentence answer, it’s hard to sit in front of someone who tells a long story that doesn’t even answer your question. That’s when they open up, because they appreciate that someone is listening.”
Zalenga is surprised by the common threads that run through her meetings with people who’ve lived eight or nine decades. “It’s interesting that when I ask what’s really important in life, many answer with the same thing. They all mention human connection, staying close to the people who are important to you.”
Frequently, a handful of chance encounters were the most meaningful events in their lives. “There were a lot of good ‘How did you meet?’ stories. People actually remember the date in 1940, the afternoon swimming at a pool, the first time their eyes met. They remember the first kiss. It is so beautiful. It’s so clear for them.”
Amid the larger tapestries of war and peace, or births and deaths, Zalenga was entranced by the details some people recalled. “One man said, ‘I remember when my dad brought home a banana, and that was the first banana I ever saw in my life.’ He even remembered the bag his dad pulled it out of.”
Her most difficult interview was with a couple who told a wonderful life story full of happy memories. “They sounded great for about two hours, and then they finally told me their only son died when he was 18. She described how she got the call. We were all three sitting there with tears running down our cheeks, even though we hadn’t known each other before that day. Then she showed me behind the door, there were a whole bunch of pictures of him. You couldn’t see them when the door was open.”
Zalenga has been humbled by how frequently people reframe their hardships in positive terms. “One man told me all about his life, so many good and bad things, and finally he mentioned that his wife got very ill when she was 45 and he had to take care of her, suffering in bed, 24 hours a day, for 25 years. But he talked about her so positively the whole time. He said he wouldn’t want to miss one of those days. It just amazed me. Where do you get the power?”
Zalenga believes that resilience is one of the most beautiful elements of age. “There’s a woman who is going blind, and she can’t watch the world around her anymore, so she looks inside. She sits at her table in the kitchen and looks through the memories in her mind. It almost sounded like looking through a book. And the smile she had on her face when she said that, it was so beautiful. She had a hard life, horrible, difficult things in her life, but she somehow was still grateful and positive and satisfied.”
When her interviewees have expressed despair, Zalenga says, it’s not due to hardship but to purposelessness. “One woman told me, ‘I often wish just to be gone. Being forced to accept help isn’t easy, but you can learn it. One thing that is unbearable, though, is feeling useless.’ It made me so sad, because she had such a treasure of knowledge and experience to give.”
A NEW APPROACH
Technically, Zalenga has been challenged by the project’s documentary style. Her normal process is heavy on image editing in Adobe Photoshop CC, with long hours spent on selective color correction or removing and duplicating parts of her images. “This project is so different,” she says. “I barely ever put these images into Photoshop, because I want them to stay as they are. I adjust the colors a little, maybe remove a stain,” all of which she does in Adobe Lightroom CC.
Instead, Zalenga has honed her photo-organization skills. “I love Lightroom’s ability to organize hundreds of images into different groups with colors and stars. If I find a look I really like, it’s handy to be able to easily apply it to the other images in the group. I have a note system with the name of each person and the date, and that pairs with metadata of the images. I record all the stories on audio, and transcribe those, and all that data is linked. It’s like doing a documentary film.”
During the process of gathering her images, Zalenga’s vision of the final exhibition and her photography itself have evolved. “As I went along, I found there was so much power in the story and the quotes I collected, and it didn’t come across with only the face and shoulders. So I started showing more of the surroundings. I still do close-up photos of every person, a face or hand detail, but I think it’s going to be the photos that show more of the surroundings that will be the interesting ones, because you see a little of their life in those photos.”
Zalenga now plans to group two or three images per person with a large quote. “I hope it will encourage people to read the little stories that go with it,” she says. “I’m dreaming now of printing the images on free-hanging glass, so you have the text and images as layers that you connect with.”
As a young artist, Zalenga says she’s grateful she spent half a year trying to reframe old age for herself. “I’m trying to make society see the beauty in age, and not overlook it or see it as a burden. There are so many elderly people in this world who feel useless. All we need to do is ask and have conversations. We will learn so much. About life, about listening, about the magic of slowness in our fast world.”