Over the hill?

In February I turned 35, which in many ways feels more significant to me than turning 30 did. I'm halfway between two spheres: early thirties and late thirties, each with its own symbolism. As a result of resting in this midpoint I've been thinking quite a lot about what age means lately. Age is a tricky thing--40 is the new 30, etc., and people seem to be getting younger all the time; but as I was riding the train home the other day I saw an ad for egg donation: women under the age of 32 only are eligible. Even though I have no desire whatsoever to partake in such a venture, it felt strange to be a full three years past the point where I would be considered "healthy enough." If I were to get pregnant again I would now be in the high-risk category, which feels laughable.

Recently Fraction Magazine posed the question: What do you think about age requirements in photography competitions? 35 seems to be the general cut-off point, again drawing attention to my advancing years. For some reason this debate floated into my mind as I was falling asleep last night, so here are my thoughts:

For me age limits almost feel like a feminist issue: how many women, including myself, have taken time away from other pursuits to raise children? I put quite a few things on hold at first, and didn't have the time to devote to shooting, let alone self-promotion. This could apply to fathers as well, as more and more men are staying home to do the bulk of the childcare. It also feels antiquated because it's now so much the norm to change careers several times throughout one's professional life. We've all heard the stories about lawyers and doctors quitting to become bakers or circus performers (anyone who's watched Oprah, at least). While I recognize that most contests don't impose age limits, thank goodness, are those that do excluding a whole host of potential talents?

In the comments section someone mentioned that perhaps finances are a consideration, with the idea being that those who have been in this business longer would be able to earn more from their work. But money is a tricky thing when it comes to the fine arts, as those struggling to make ends meet through our creative pursuits know, and I'm sure there are plenty of artists who can't devote themselves solely to art-making due to jobs that are done for financial security, which again detracts from the ability to get oneself "out there."

All of that said, I don't have a problem with competitions open only to women. There is a well-documented gender bias when it comes to being shown as an artist, and although this is a trend that seems to be turning somewhat, the cards have been stacked against us female photographers for long enough now that I think opportunities for leveling the playing field are warranted. The same holds true for minority competitions--giving marginalized groups the opportunity to be seen and heard is an important factor in the makeup of a healthy society.

I hope by the time my girls are too old to enter the "emerging artist" competitions these shows a.) will no longer exist and b.) there will be no more need for female-only/minority-only opportunities as the art world will be equalized enough to make such shows unnecessary, except in terms of curatorial themes.


debsphotographs said…
age is tricky...yes!! i'm one of those registered nurses turned photographers and so my journey in this industry didn't even start until i was 36. i'm now 40 and having picked up a camera only four years ago, my journey is only just beginning. i find it very frustrating when i see a 35-year-old age cutoff.

although i do understand having a 30-something age limit for egg donation, as our ovaries only do their thing for a certain amount of time. but who is to say when a woman picks up a camera and begins her journey as a photographer?!!

anyways, i'm babbling. but i totally relate to what your saying!! thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said…
Good post.
First of I think the grant, comp, internet photo world is getting a bit out of hand. There seems to be a small number of people who are average editors at best or should I say "curators". Most of them seem to be good friends and like to pat each other on the back.

Well, I'll say that age and gender is only one thing that limit photographers. There's so may other obstacles...

- Nationality
- Skin color
- Genre in photography
- Education
- Contacts
- Money

For example, US photographers seem to be over-represented and if you're a white US photographer with a MFA shooting pics of trees, has contacts and rich parents well you've basically hit the jackpot.

I'm from Europe and in the country I live I can't say that gender and age is a big problem.

Ellen Rennard said…
You said what I meant in my comment on David's post, only better. BTW, did you know that at 35, a woman is in her sexual prime? I kid you not. Doesn't it seem more than a little weird that just as you hit the prime of your life, age restrictions keep you out of a photo competition?
Valerie YB said…
Perhaps a show for women OVER 35? I think we have a unique perspective that is under-appreciated... we have the luxury of maturity, life experiences, and (hopefully) have gained wisdom that should not be ignored, but celebrated.
Elizabeth, I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

As a relative codger of 47 with a demanding "day job" who is doing his best to "emerge" around the rest of his life (picture an overlarge and grizzled moth clawing its way free of the cocoon...) I am obviously no fan of age-restricted competitions. OTOH, I don't deny that any private entity has the right to limit its contest offerings any way it wishes, if it doesn't mind arbitrarily limiting the talent pool it can draw from--foolishly, in my estimation. When this starts to matter to enough people, those contests will find themselves bereft of contestants soon enough.

But respectfully, it seems inconsistent to accept preferential treatment for some groups (e.g. women and minorities) while decrying it for others (the under-35 crowd). Why is one kind of discrimination allowable while the other is odious? It becomes a tiresome contest between varying (if real enough) legacies of oppression: whose past suffering is more virtuous, and therefore more worthy of compensatory preference? I suppose this is really the affirmative-action debate writ small---under what circumstances is discrimination acceptable in the service of a supposedly overriding "greater good"? Can't imagine that's where you want this post to go; nor do I.

But preferences of any kind, however well intentioned, are a retrograde step as we work toward the ideal: the individual consideration of photographic work based on the work's merit, considered apart from its creator's demographics.
Thanks everyone for your thoughtful responses, I've just written a new post with some new thoughts. Ellen, I'd skimmed the Fraction comments and in looking at yours again I realize how subconsciously I'd incorporated your ideas into my own! So thanks for providing the impetus for this post. And I love the irony of being in one's sexual prime just as you age out of certain opportunities. That's some good irony.

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