The Story Behind the Portrait
My portrait ‘Jean’ is part of my new project ‘Youth is Wasted on the Young’ which features a collection of portraits looking at a more mature selection of society, individuals who refuse to conform to the notion that they should fade into the background because they have reached a pensionable age.
I first came across Jean on the Channel 4 documentary ‘Fabulous Fashionistas’ which documented the lives of six women over the age of 70, who were determined to look fabulous, have fun and redefine old age. Jean was a clear standout for me, not only because she looked amazing, but more importantly for her incredible spirit, passion and lust for life. At 76 she had more energy than most people half her age and I felt completely inspired by her, I just knew that one day I had to take her portrait.
It took me almost two years to finally track Jean down and arrange the photoshoot which took place in her home town of Bath, Somerset. The plan was to meet Jean in a local coffee shop and have a chat so that we could get to know each other first before the shoot. Unfortunately, moments after I arrived in Bath, the dark clouds started looming which meant rain fall was not far off. Because I was going to photograph Jean on the streets, we had to start shooting very quickly before the rain fell which didn’t leave much time to really get to know each other beforehand.
The shoot didn’t get off to the best of starts and I felt slightly frustrated because I wasn’t getting the images I wanted. I decided it was best if we took a short break and had a chat as originally planned (those dark clouds now thankfully clearing). We discussed Jean’s incredible life and, how at the age of 76, shortly after the death her husband (whom she had been married to for 56 years) she approached clothing retailer the Gap for a sales position and was given a job on the spot. This re-ignited Jean’s passion for fashion giving her a new meaning in life. After much chatting (and laughing) we then reconvened with the photos and the portraits were now much stronger, more personal than previous. Jean was now much more confident and I was getting exactly the type of photographs I had originally hoped for. After a further ten minutes of photographing Jean I had the exact portrait I wanted. Strong, simple, minimalist with her eyes so full of life.
With the pressure of the photoshoot (and bad weather) now lifted, Jean and I headed to a coffee shop and she shared many amazing stories with me of her late start into modeling, which were always so full of gratitude for all the people she has worked with over the years. She also discussed her East London upbringing and her inspirational father, a boxer from Leytonstone, who encouraged her fighting spirit and taught her never to give up. We finished our coffee, said our goodbyes and I headed back to London full of joy of the wonderful person I had just met and photographed.
Over the years I have taken many portraits and met some amazing people but the photoshoot and the meeting with Jean is one I’ll always cherish. Meeting someone so wonderfully inspiring and full of life makes me realise why I love portrait photography so much. Now, whenever I look at that photo of Jean I’m reminded that age is really just a number and anything is possible as long as you want it bad enough. As a photographer, I am used to inspiring others with my work but on this occasion it was Jean who inspired me and that is why the portrait is so special to me.
Peter Zelewski is a London based portrait and documentary photographer. Born in Detroit, USA, he moved to London in the 1980s and studied at the London College of Communication (LCC). Through his fascination of people and love of the city, he was drawn to the streets of London to take photographs of its citizens which has resulted in two award-winning projects ’People of Soho’ and ‘Beautiful Strangers’.
His work has been featured in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Evening Standard, Huck, Time Out, Stylist, Vogue Living and We Heart. In 2015 he was awarded third prize in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His first book ‘People of London’ has just been published by Hoxton Mini Press.