When Dylan T Colalrd won the Ilford B&W Student Awards in 1996, he was brought on a trip around California with American photographer Richard Newman. As a young man, he was fascinated by the people he encountered and was inspired by the sense of space in California. In his mind, the idea of putting a bench in the middle of California's natural landscape was an image that stayed with him. This trip would later on serve as an inspirational location for Dylan's latest project, Ages of Us.
Fast forward to 2015, Dylan roped in a his good friend and assistant, Greg and his college mate, Darren and flew down to California. He also flew in the seats from the UK to Los Angeles, where a set builder built the bench frame. This bench would be the most important prop and also the main setup for which Ages of Us were to be shot on.
For the next 3 weeks, he drove 3000 miles across California and photographed 165 people.
Ages of Us is a photography and an audio project journeying life in itself. Consisting of portraits of people seated in an exuberant green bench, subjects are seated chronologically according to their age. Seated left are subjects 0 – 25 years, the middle seat 25 – 50 years and the right seat 50 + years. Each subjects are asked a question about their Past, Present and Future in an effort to explore the effects of ageing.
How did this project came to be?
I used have an office space in London Bridge and every night I’d walk my dog back towards the Underground past a Chinese take away. Through the window of the takeaway I’d often see a single figure sitting on a three seat bench, staring into space and it was an image I liked. I started thinking about where people go in their heads while they’re waiting like this, and then I started thinking about taking a bench on a journey. Around the same time I landed a big American pharma commission which got cancelled half way through as the clients sold the product. Luckily I got paid anyway which was great but what wasn’t so great was the fact I didn’t have this lovely campaign in my portfolio as well as an in to the US Pharma market. So I decided I had to use the fees to fund a project to fill the gap left by the canned commission.
At the time a friend called Emma Taylor who used to work for my agent was setting up a photographers consultancy called Creative Advice Network and I went to her with a loose idea of the bench road trip and my agents request for me to shoot a broader ranger of ages than just old people which had become a bit of a theme in my portfolio at the time. We chatted, ate cake and drank coffee until we came up with the idea of the three seat representing three age groups and Ages Of Us was born! Emma came up with the title and Emma’s Mum penned the questions while I organised the trip.
How receptive were strangers when you approach them to be photographed?
People were great and I’d say at least 70% of folk we asked agreed. Of course we got a few refusals if people were busy or just didn’t fancy it. Some people don’t like the attention of having their photo taken in front of an audience, I doubt I would have stopped if I was passing! As well as photographing participants we were interviewing people to ask the three questions about past, present and future and recording their answers on a dictaphone to give us audio for a soundtrack and copy for the book of the project. That slowed things up so we didn’t manage to get everyone to answer the questions but Darren did an amazing job of talking to people and getting them to open up. Watching Darren approach people was a real education for me and Greg. Darren is a master as starting a conversation, he’s open, honest and smiles with a grin that shows 2 missing teeth (at the time). He had a charm that most people responded to!
We met Mexicans, Americans, French, German, Swiss, Dutch, Cowboys, homeless people, a professional Santa, scientists, students, Firemen, Park Rangers, dealers (apparently), stoners, festival goers, illustrators, all sorts of people.
We met an amazing family in Yosemite with two teenage kids who had some fantastic and amazing insightful answers. At the same place we met an old guy traveling in a large camper that he’d bought when his wife died and was travelling the US for the hell of it.
We met research scientists coming out of the ocean at Monterey, we met an amazing truck driver on Route 66 travelling with his wife and grandson.
We met a Hmong family in the woods of Yosemite who insisted on sharing their lunch with us, soldiers coming out of Macdonalds, white water rafting instructors and a biker who casually / accidentally showed us his gun!
As we were leaving Yosemite we stopped and photographed some people in one of the meadows near the river. When we’d finished we carried the lights back to the van and left the bench for 10 mins. When we turned round a couple of French ladies were sitting on it taking pictures of each other! Put a bench anywhere and people will sit on it!
The question that you asked these participants are extremely simple but bears a certain significance to it. What was your intention behind this?
I wanted questions that were easy to answer so it wasn’t off putting to people we approached. I wanted questions that were relevant to everyone and tied into the idea of the three seats and three ages of youth, middle and old age. I wanted questions that could be answered quickly and simply if people were in a hurry or they could be the start of a conversation / story about peoples lives, pasts and future hopes if people wanted to talk.
The idea of Ages Of Us is to consider age across all ages rather than just looking at what its like to be at one point in the life course. I like the comparison between someone at the start of their life and someone nearing the end of their life. Visually I wanted to see how this was reflected in peoples appearance, how they sit, in their body language, their confidence, defiance, vulnerability etc, etc.
What was your gear?
We took 3 x Pro 7b3 kits with a few brolly, beauty dish, 5 ft Octa softbox and some stands. One of the smallest kits I’ve ever travelled with really but its California so we were only really filling in shadows or adding a bit of key lighting if needed.
What do you hope to achieve with the images from Ages of Us?
I’ve always like long term projects and the weight of large bodies of work. I remember seeing a Bernard and Hiller Becher retrospective in Amsterdam a few years ago and although at first I was overwhelmed by the rooms full of similar looking images suddenly I got it as a whole and went back to the beginning to see it again and take it in in its entirety. Taryn Simon’s “A Living Man Declared Dead” is another influence as I loved the way it presented multiple images / groups of people. I guess I’d like to see Ages Of Us like that, displayed as a whole but also as a project that can keep moving and developing depending on where I take it and who I meet.
Hopefully Ages Of Us triggers thought and discussion about ideas of ageing beyond considering what it is to be a certain age. Ages Of Us is supposed to get us to think about how our idea, hopes and aspirations change as we age and maybe ask why? Ages Of Us UK is a collaboration with Dave Martin from the Centre for Policy On Ageing and he is helping with funding applications and locations. Its thanks to Dave that the project has recently been in the Turner Contemporary and the British Museum.
This is a project that could continue to document subjects from many worlds. Why did you decide to move it to the UK.
The project started in the US as I’d always wanted to do a road trip, because of the trip in 96 and because it suited the idea. The vastness of the Californian landscape as a background on which to single out individuals and their vulnerabilities in a country that often trades on its self assertion, confidence and arrogance. But I always knew it would also make a great project to shoot in the UK and even more so as a comparison to the US. It would be interesting to see how people responded in comparison to the US public’s open enthusiasm, whether they would want to get involved at all, I was definitely nervous about bringing the bench to the UK! Then there was the questions of how the UK’s landscape would work shooting the same lens, bench distance I had in California. Visually it rarely offers the space and scale that California does and so gives a different, more enclosed, narrower, cosier or crowded feel to the images. Of course the UK offers a great range of backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities to shoot in a much more geographically accessible area. I would love to cover other areas of the US as well but then I’d also like to go to Japan, Southern America, Eastern Europe, Russia and so on. For now the UK is a more accessible and familiar option.
How significant is this project to you, as a photographer and a human being?
Its become a huge part of my work and potentially a project to continue for the rest of my life! That said I’m an advertising photographer and I have to maintain that portfolio to ensure I keep getting the work that funds personal projects like this. As a human being, I’m not sure I take such grand views of projects I’m working on. Its a project I love and that I love doing. Its great meeting all these people and hearing their stories. I’m learning from the project and people I photograph as well as being humbled by the way people will trust and open up to some strangers with a bench.
Alright, I’m gonna turn the tables around a little. Hope you won’t mind!:
When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up? What was important to you when you were young?
I wanted to be good at something, I wasn’t sure what but I like music and I was good with pictures. For a while I was quite into design and then I thought about being an animator. I liked photography and I was fascinated by my Dad’s camera but I wasn’t allowed near it.
What do you do now? What sort of things does your life involve now? What kind of work do you do , family, relationships? What’s important to you now?
Now I’m a photographer and its great. Its hard, competitive and full of uncertainty but I still love it. As long as I feel like I’m slowly moving forwards and doing something then I’m happy. I’m settled and happy with my partner Linda and two dogs and I’ve sort of got into dog training as a way to get out and away from photography when I’m stuck!
What would you like to do in the future, what’s left, what plans do you have for the future?
To keep shooting, keep working, keep doing what I do for as long as possible with as few worries as possible. I’d love to do more with Ages OF Us UK and then take it on some more overseas adventures but we’ll see. Age wise I’m approaching the end seat which is funny and something I hadn’t really thought about when I set the age brackets!
Photography by Dylan T Collard
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