Throw out the 'granny' stereotype

Updated 2nd March 2016
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Throw out the 'granny' stereotype
Written by By Benazir Wehelie, Special to CNN
Ari Seth Cohen doesn't agree with how society tends to portray older people.
"In the world of fashion and beauty and lifestyle, the predominant images are either patronizing or negative and show a picture of aging -- like that sort of granny stereotype -- that's not totally the reality of what is actually happening in the world of aging," the photographer said. "What I was seeing was this very creative, active, vital, radical form of aging."
In 2012, following the death of his grandmother, Cohen published a photo book, "Advanced Style," that showcased the street fashion of many people over 60. It inspired a documentary two years later. And now, he's publishing a colorful follow-up: "Advanced Style: Older and Wiser."
Cohen said that since his first book, he has noticed a global movement within the media in which older people "are shown in a different light." They often appear on fashion runways, he said, and older actresses are being embraced by beauty brands.
"A lot of casting agents were approaching me to use some of the ladies that I photographed, asking me to do various projects," he said. "I think it's really a movement."
Photographer Ari Seth Cohen
Photographer Ari Seth Cohen
Cohen's images have resonated well beyond the United States. The new book features subjects from all over the world.
Manuela Muguerza Garcia-Moreno, photo No. 18 in the gallery above, was 93 years old when Cohen met her. Cohen said she contacted him via a Facebook message after having seen his previous images.
"She's an incredibly elegant woman who lived in Buenos Aires, and so I flew down to photograph her and interview her for the book," Cohen said. "I was so honored that at 93 she was following my work, this incredibly elegant woman."
Cohen said one of his best memories was meeting 97-year-old yoga master Tao Porchon-Lynch, seen above in photo No. 9. He captured her essence while attending an aging festival in Montenegro. What made Porchon-Lynch stand out, Cohen said, was her joy, emotion and vitality.
"Spending two days with her in Montenegro, there was no complaints about jet lag. She stayed up longer than anyone the whole trip. She was dancing, she was joyful, she was giving," he said. "Her whole philosophy about aging (is) how we're constantly recycling ourselves and how there really is no age -- it's really just a matter of your mindset. Seeing a 97-year-old woman that vital, for me, is incredibly powerful."
While Cohen concentrated on women for his first book, he began to recognize that men face similar pressures as they age.
"Although I think there is an inequality with the way that society treats men and women in terms of getting older and many other things, men were having the same difficulties, which I really wasn't as aware of," he said. "In terms of physical appearance and treatment as a whole of older people, I think there's a similarity there. But it's a little more hidden in terms of what men go through."
Regardless of who his subjects are and how different they may be, Cohen says they all share similar characteristics that ultimately attracted him in the first place.
"It can be anything from an elegant woman walking down the street with a strand of pearls to someone who might have made their own clothing and (is) an artist," he said. "It's really about that spirit, that vitality, that expression of creativity. It's like a life force that is drawing me to them."
Cohen has loved dressing up since he was a child. He observed how, from the very beginning of our lives, we tend to want to fit in with how others dress. And then we get our first job and usually have to look a certain way as well.
"I started meeting all these older people who were past all those stages and just rebelling and really being true to themselves and unafraid to wear whatever they wanted and express themselves in whatever way they wanted," he said. "So for me, it's sort of given me that permission to really dress however I feel on any given day. ... It's about playing, it's about joy, it's about having fun."
Cohen hopes that the people in his book will help others to realize that growing older is a part of life that is well worth looking forward to -- and one that can be full of spirit.
"There's these huge demands on men and women to not look their age any longer," he said. "And for me, I just hope that people will see these pictures of men and women who have grown older with vitality and grace and creativity and it will help to lessen some of their fears about growing older themselves."
Ari Seth Cohen is a photographer based in New York. "Advanced Style: Older and Wiser" will be published by powerHouse Books and is now available for pre-order.