“Visual Gerontologist”: An Interview with Marianne Gontarz York

Photography in this fall Reflections features the work of Marianne Gontarz York. Born in Boston, she recently retired from full-time work after 44 years as a social worker. She received a graduate degree from the Boston University School of Social Work’s Gerontology Program. Early on in her career, she began to win awards for her photos of older people. She describes her vocation and passion as visual gerontology, using her camera to advocate for older people and challenge negative images of aging. For decades, her photography has been exhibited and used to illustrate academic books in the field. Today she lives in Marin County in northern California, where she has a private practice offering counseling and group work. She is still using the camera, branching out into videography and planning to do some “digital storytelling.” See www.mariannegontarzyork.com.

REFLECTIONS: What was the image of aging when you started out in the 1970s?

Gontarz York: It was pretty negative. Old people were considered a problem. Programs and researchers focused on sickness, poverty, loss of social roles, isolation, and demoralization. But I knew that’s not how I wanted to age. I wanted to break those negative stereotypes. I was lucky and studied with a pioneering mentor at Boston University, Dr. Louis Lowy. He saw the coming “Age Wave” of the baby boomers. He knew our society was not prepared. Dr. Lowy was an Auschwitz survivor who impressed upon his students the importance of living a purposeful and meaningful life. So after graduate school, I set out with the simple question, How do older people find purpose and meaning in their life in a culture where they no longer seem to serve any purpose? As a baby boomer, the question became, How can I lead a long and happy life in a culture that values productivity over community?
We clearly don’t have any maps to guide us.

Reflections: Why was this a subject close to your heart even in your 20s?

Gontarz York: I have a positive image of aging – probably because growing up I had an older father. He was a positive and vigorous person. He worked hard and still took good care of himself. He was interested in vitamins and healthy eating. I was never uncomfortable with older people. I didn’t really see age.

Reflections: Do you think the culture’s attitudes toward aging have improved since the beginning of your career?

Gontarz York: Now that I’m 65, I’m not so sure. I think the culture still sees older people as a problem by and large. But I am also happy to report that some programs and researchers now study the positive aspects of aging as well as the negatives. My generation seems to want to live for a long time, but what will it really be like? Medical technology has done a great job extending life, but not much attention has been paid to the quality of that life. They say 70 is the new 60. And 80 is the new 70. But in reality, 70 is 70 and 80 is 80. Let’s face it: aging may be perceived by the culture as a social problem, but it is an amazing achievement. And I’ve been cultivating a purposeful, meaningful, long and happy life for a while. I hope many others choose that route as well.

Reflections: How do you decide whom to photograph?

Gontarz York: I look for the spark in people. No matter what the perceived disability, I see strengths and capabilities. I look for a way to connect with people of all ages using a camera as my ready tool. I found that older people appreciate being seen. We live in a culture where they otherwise aren’t seen. As a social worker, my intention is to develop a connection with a person as soon as possible. I find that a camera or a photo makes that easier. That’s how the photo of the woman looking at the framed photo [see p. 32] took place. I was on a photo project following a geriatrician in Boston when I met her in her home and asked about the framed picture nearby. I learned it is a photo of herself as a young woman. We connected as she naturally shifted into reminiscing about her childhood.

Reflections: You recently retired from full-time work. How is it going?

Gontarz York: I’m enjoying myself thoroughly, doing things I never had time to do. I’m learning conversational Spanish so I can travel in Latin America. I do yoga to keep me balanced. I volunteer at a local public school, working with troubled teenagers in a community garden – using my camera with them, taking pictures of them as they work in the garden. I love seeing them smile. I think it really is an opportunity to build up their self-image. I am also spending time learning the world of digital photography. Life is short. I am in good health. I’m doing things I love.