Out of the blue
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