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Issue Ten / Interview,Photo Essay
“They live a modest life, never changed their residence and are helpful to the community”

Happy at One Hundred

Photographs by Karsten Thormaehlen

German photographer Karsten Thormaehlen travels the globe documenting the stories behind and the faces of some of the world’s oldest dwellers. We ask him a few questions about his portrait series and what he’s learned from his elders.

How old is old? Old enough to have a three-quarter life crisis? Old enough to remember life before TV? Old enough to live through two world wars? Karsten Thormaehlen, 48, has spent the past seven years photographing people more than twice his age—those folks are officially “old.”

After publishing two sold-out books profiling centenarians and orchestrating an extensive touring exhibition of their images through central Europe, Karsten recently visited Sardinia and Japan (which have some of the longest average life spans globally) to photograph their elderly inhabitants. We spoke with him about the meaning of age and gleaned the wisdom passed on to him from people born before the Titanic sank.

Where did the idea of photographing centenarians come from?
I’d never met a centenarian before. In 2006, I saw one in a local newspaper and thought the photograph could’ve been done better, so I photographed the centenarian grandmother of a former colleague. It was very interesting to take a deep look into eyes that have seen 100 years of history: almost the complete 20th century. The following year a famous hotel in Berlin celebrated its 100th birthday by inviting a hundred 100-year-old people. I found most of my models from the first series there, and now I’ve photographed more than 70 centenarians. There are apparently more than 17,000 centenarians currently alive in Germany.

What do your subjects think of what you are doing?
Originally they thought I was crazy! But in the latest series, they were all excited. They feel flattered and enjoy the attention as it makes them feel special.

Were they vain about their appearances?
They were the best models I ever had! Vanity seems to be a genetic determination of mankind though—it never goes away.

How do they feel the world had changed?
During the 20th century there were so many revolutions, wars, genocides, technical inventions and political changes like never before in human history. Compared to some recent decades, they now live the best lives they’ve ever lived. They are at peace with themselves and the world around them and are grateful, friendly and fun!

How did their attitudes toward age change once they reached 100?
What can they say? They have outlived all of their friends—even their children sometimes. They have no idea why it happened to them. Although they come from completely different cultures, there are many similarities in the ways these very old people live: They live a modest life, never changed their residence and are helpful to the community. They feel needed.

Did any of them have secrets for reaching 100 years old?
Whiskey is a good keyword! Gin is better though. The grandmother of the head of Gordon’s Gin was 109 when she recently passed—she lived to be one of the oldest women in Great Britain.

How has the project changed your own outlook on life?
I look at things differently. There’s less pressure because one has lived his life—each day is a gift and a gift should always be a pleasure.

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given so far?
It actually wasn’t a centenarian. The 75-year-old Japanese guide for my tour there gave me some good advice: “If you’ve reached the summit, it only goes downhill. So it is important to climb continuously!”

Visit Thormaehlen Photography or Happy at Hundred to learn more. 

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