Out of the blue

Amateur Photographer - - 7 Days - The Greek is­land of Ikaria has many res­i­dents in their 90s and be­yond. Lily Bun­gay talks to Amy Davies about her project to doc­u­ment their lives

This week’s Photo Sto­ries is about Lily Bun­gay’s project on the res­i­dents of the is­land of Ikaria

Des­ig­nated as one of five ‘Blue Zones’ by Na­tional Geo­graphic, the is­land of Ikaria is a cu­ri­ous place. In such zones, peo­ple typ­i­cally live well into their nineties and be­yond.

Need­ing a fi­nal ma­jor project for her MA in Doc­u­men­tary Pho­tog­ra­phy, Lily Bun­gay was nat­u­rally drawn to the is­land, thanks to a long-stand­ing con­nec­tion with the elderly. ‘I re­mem­ber ac­com­pa­ny­ing my mother as we de­liv­ered meals- on-wheels din­ners,’ she ex­plains. ‘As a teenager, I worked in shel­tered hous­ing, serv­ing lunches to the res­i­dents and help­ing out with house­hold chores. More re­cently, I vol­un­teered with the char­ity South Lon­don Cares, which hosts so­cial events that bring to­gether young pro­fes­sion­als with older peo­ple liv­ing in the same ar­eas. There is so much value in cross- gen­er­a­tional re­la­tion­ships, but I worry that it’s some­thing that many of my peers miss out on, liv­ing in our fre­netic so­ci­ety.’

In­creas­ing life ex­pectancy means we have an ever-ag­ing pop­u­la­tion. De­vel­op­ments in pre­ven­ta­tive health­care and the chang­ing role of women in so­ci­ety means we are hav­ing fewer chil­dren and liv­ing longer. In 2016 there were 11.8 mil­lion UK res­i­dents aged over 65, rep­re­sent­ing 18% of the pop­u­la­tion. By 2066, it’s pre­dicted 26% of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion will be 65 or older (ONS, 2018).

De­spite her back­ground, Bun­gay as­sumed she had any no­tions of ageism firmly in check. On closer in­spec­tion, she re­alised she’d been re­ly­ing on visual tropes – such as peo­ple slumped in a chair, fo­cus­ing on wrin­kles and sullen-look­ing sub­jects. ‘Dur­ing my MA we have ex­plored the prob­lem­atic role of pho­tog­ra­phy, fo­cus­ing on points of dif­fer­ence, es­sen­tially “oth­er­ing” peo­ple. I wanted to cre­ate an al­ter­na­tive por­trayal of ag­ing while pic­tur­ing peo­ple within their con­text.’

The jour­ney be­gins

Read­ing as much as she could about Ikaria be­fore setting off, Bun­gay de­cided to con­cen­trate on just one area. ‘I didn’t want to spread my­self too thin, so I re­searched the most pop­u­lous vil­lages and de­cided to base my­self in one vil­lage high up in the moun­tains and get to know the lo­cal com­mu­nity. Find­ing a trans­la­tor was my big­gest chal­lenge. Ev­ery time I got a lead, it fell through. In the end I just had to fly out and hope that I would find some­one to work with. Luck­ily my Airbnb host told me his sis­ter-in-law was on hol­i­day on the is­land and spoke English. I met her on day two and by that af­ter­noon, we were out in the vil­lage meet­ing peo­ple and setting up in­ter­views.’

Since its Blue Zone la­bel, Ikaria has gar­nered plenty of at­ten­tion from jour­nal­ists and health- con­cerned tourists. Bun­gay was con­scious of her re­spon­si­bil­ity to por­tray the sub­jects in a way which pre­served their dig­nity. As such, she pho­tographed in­di­vid­u­als en­gaged in daily ac­tiv­i­ties, com­mu­ni­cat­ing a sense of pur­pose right into later life.

‘Al­most ev­ery­one sus­tains them­selves from food grown in their gar­den,’ she says. ‘ They also keep bees and eat this thick, dark am­ber honey al­most daily. I met peo­ple in their nineties who get up at 6am ev­ery day to work in their gar­den and take care of their an­i­mals. Rather than sim­ply snap a quick por­trait, I would in­ter­view each in­di­vid­ual to find out about their life, how they spend their days, what’s im­por­tant. I would then ask to pho­to­graph them as they went about their day.’

The project was ex­hib­ited – along with work from Bun­gay’s fel­low course­mates – at her univer­sity’s fi­nal de­gree show. ‘I cre­ated a multi-sen­sory in­stal­la­tion to bring a lit­tle piece of Ikaria to the ex­hi­bi­tion. I man­aged to bor­row a bee­hive and put a speaker in­side it which played out sounds of bees, ci­cadas and fes­ti­val mu­sic which I’d recorded in Ikaria. I brought in rus­tic el­e­ments in­clud­ing plants and peb­bles to con­vey a sense of liv­ing in har­mony with the land. I gave out pots of honey and on the wall I hung a tray of real hon­ey­comb which dripped honey down the wall dur­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion.’

Bun­gay would be keen to re­turn to Ikaria to show the in­hab­i­tants the por­traits – it’s no sur­prise to learn that most of them don’t have email or Face­book. As for her next mis­sion, she says, ‘Ideally I would like to visit the re­main­ing four Blue Zones: Okinawa, Ja­pan; Loma Linda, Cal­i­for­nia; Ni­coya Penin­sula, Costa Rica; and Oglias­tra Re­gion, Sar­dinia. I would like to cre­ate sim­i­lar projects on each, but I’ll need to find some fund­ing to make that a re­al­ity.’

The por­traits show a sense of pur­pose and dig­nity

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