Geriacrobatics

September 22, 2011 

Covering centenarians' birthdays is often a groaner gig for community photojournalists. I don't think anybody begrudges families for wanting to get their elders featured in the local rag. They do seem to come in waves, though, and I'd be lying if I said I don't roll my eyes in the multi-100-year-old birthday weeks.

Maybe I've just had good luck in the handful of celebrations I've covered, but I really don't mind them that much. One of the most memorable was getting to hang with Opal Coleman, who turned 100 the same day I turned 27.

I awkwardly shot her and myself for Facebook's sake during the party:

And waited around for some moments. Her great granddaughter Jasmine Pease was one of several relatives who came up to wish her a happy day and I liked this moment best:

About a year later, I visited Marie Grooms on her 102nd birthday. This shot of her son Richard Spadt holding the cake was a decent fallback,

but the fun part was Richard taking Marie for a ride on a replica 1901 Oldsmobile:

Barring shared birthdays and novelty components, these parties can sometimes stretch the meaning of the word. Such was the case at Emma Wentz's 102nd birthday lunch at Richland Gardens. The family had their own table near a window in the dark room as they quietly ate their meals. I pulled up a chair and met the family making it clear that I was just going to hang out and photograph what happened — no setup necessary.

There weren't many interesting moments to capture as they ate, but at least Alan Butler of Burbank, Emma's self-described favorite grandson-in-law, kept the corny dad jokes going. I thought he was pretty funny and the humor was only amplified by how embarrassing it was for his daughter Hailey.

Like it so often goes, much of the action swirled around the birthday honoree, but did not always involve her:

Photos of people taking photos aren't terribly exciting either:

When it came time for Emma to answer the default question of, "What's the secret to longevity," I lined up hoping it was something funny and that Hailey would turn in profile so I could include the four generations. "I ate my vegetables," was funny enough, apparently:

It's nothing epic, but as I've pointed out before, some of the least impressive photos we run take a lot more time and effort than people think. As with the other shoots, this photo took about an hour to make. I'd bet the average person would assume these are quick-and-dirty-stop-by-and-grab-a-snap-or-two kind of shoots.

The difficulties with these assignments are easy to imagine, though. The subjects are often hard of hearing and not too spry. In my experience, they're never that excited about what seems like such a huge milestone to the rest of us.

That's what happened when I visited Kathleen Toler in West Richland. I showed up a little early since time was tight with another assignment in Richland an hour later. I beat almost all the guests and shot some quickie portraits by the nice window light before explaining that I'd just settle in, hang out and shoot what happened.

Right after arriving, though, I got a call about changing my next assignment. The new shoot was at the same time, but in south Kennewick. I apologized and let them know my time with them had been shortened.

Kathleen thankfully stayed near that window and I prepared for some happy birthday hugs as family arrived. Those didn't happen, though, and everybody just sat around. Kathleen started flipping through a book about her life that her niece Barbara Krejci put together,

which was a relief since time was ticking and I hadn't shot anything. Eventually, great nephew Eric Krejci came over to have peek,

but the height disparity was hard to work with from against the wall. I heard some nervous chatter about a missing relative and how they needed to do cake soon. They set everything up and lit the candles,

before having Kathleen cut the cake. The problem was, it was an ice cream cake that was fresh from the freezer. Clearly, it was too much for a 100-year-old to stab through:

I was already running late at that point, so I thanked them and headed out. Barbara in turn thanked me for taking the time and making the trip out. "I know these are painful for you guys," she said.

While this had been the most challenging of my birthday party shoots, I wouldn't call it painful. Those small acknowledgments are nice to hear occasionally, though, and I was pleasantly surprised by the cake stabbing photo. For a situation without the usual charming features or unorthodox props, I had snapped my favorite frame from a 100-year-old party. I converted it to black and white since there's some funky color shifts from the window and indoor lighting and it amplifies the maniacal nature of the frame.

Since I liked it so much, I figured I should run it by somebody else before submitting it for publication. Sure enough, City/Behind the Fold Editor Kristina Lord confirmed my fears that it was too creepy for the story. That was fine since I felt a little dirty about photographing a situation that probably happened because my rushed scheduling expedited their ceremony. I went with the solo shot of Kathleen flipping through the book for the paper.

Barbara's comment struck a cord with me, though. And seeing how appreciative she was of the short time I spent there was rewarding. Most of us get into the photojournalism game striving to make that amazing photo that sparks profound change. Sometimes these small-town sort of assignments feel like they're beneath our storytelling eyes, but the reality is that much of what we do feels like we're spinning our wheels. People die at the same intersections, drown at the same parks and food banks always seem to be short on donations.

And people keep turning 100.

Creative stress is a small price to pay for some local feel-good featuring and if I make it to 100 and newspapers are still around — two Shaq-sized ifs — I hope my family calls up the local fish wrapper. Only I'll make sure it's the craziest mother$@&#ing birthday party that photographer has ever seen.

Am I sounding more optimistic this week?

Well, that's thanks to Geekfest, the annual photo conference for A Photo A Day. A huge thanks to APAD founder Melissa Lyttle for putting it on again. You can see what this year's lineup was and get a small taste of what I saw. And if you don't already regularly check out aphotoaday.org, you should probably start.

Check out this "Lie-ca M3" pinhole camera you can print and make at home.

Not photonerdy enough for you? How about Warco, the upcoming first-person shooter that simulates life as a war correspondent. It's not as enticing to me as 2006's Dead Rising since it doesn't have zombies and features video work instead of still photography, but intriguing nonetheless.

~~~~~

kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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