Former academic turned photographer shifts the perspective on how senior athletes are photographed
Transcending Sport is presented by Chris Stafford
Podcast length: 31’41”
Alex Rotas is a retired academic and competitive tennis player who took up photography when she recognized that the media was mainly portraying people over 60 as the retired redundant or immobile. She determined that it was time to shift the focus instead of bemoaning the absence of positive pictures and decided to portray the active and engaged aspects of senior life. She brought a camera, found a tutor and made it her mission to be a sports photojournalist covering a range of sports for seniors already including the European Masters Athletics Championships the Indoor Rowing Championships, squash and tennis.
Visit Alex’s website here
LISTEN to more episodes of Transcending Sport here
[00:00:00] Hello. You’re listening to Transcending Sport. I’m Chris Stafford. Alex Rotas is a retired academic and competitive tennis player who took up photography when she recognized that the media was mainly portraying people over 60 as the retired redundant or immobile. She determined that it was time to shift the focus instead of bemoaning the absence of positive pictures and decided to portray the active and engaged aspects of senior life. She brought a camera, found a tutor and made it her mission to be a sports photojournalist covering a range of sports for seniors already including the European Masters Athletics Championships the Indoor Rowing Championships, squash and tennis. And I caught up with Alex at her home in the south of England to hear her story and her plans for the year. Alex welcome to the program.
[00:00:55] Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.
[00:00:58] Well this is very much an area of women’s sport that is less visible so it would seem you’ve cornered a gap in the market here. How did the partnership between the sport and photography come about for you.
[00:01:10] Alex it’s happened because I’m in a sporty person and I’m an older person as well when I hit 60 I decided maybe I was going to be an older person and I got interested in seeing images were out there that focused on older sporty people like myself and I did a google search and to my surprise nothing came up. And the moment you put anything relating to older in that search all you got was more of a Bond pictures of people older people in care homes very depressing images.
[00:01:48] It’s not to say that there weren’t people doing what I’m doing now that there’s a sort of handful of us but that wasn’t they weren’t reaching the top of any search engines and the visibility was really very low which made me think that people just aren’t are they not interested in older people doing sport or are they not interested because they don’t know. You know there’s a kind of circle there. So I thought well well anyway there’s a gap here and wouldn’t it be great to start taking some pictures and try to get them out there and raise visibility by I suppose invo informing more general public that these events were going on.
[00:02:30] And what I discovered when I started doing a few little exhibitions locally of my work was that people would say Oh my goodness this is so interesting how come I never knew how come we don’t know about these people. I’d love to go and see and you know I just realised that it was this kind of vicious circle of people not knowing and therefore there being no interest given there was no interest. The media weren’t going to put any money to sending people out to photograph them and it was just going round around like that.
[00:03:01] And were there any sports that you focused on initially. Alex when you started photography.
[00:03:07] Well my own interest is tennis and I’ve I’ve been a lifelong competitive tennis player. So I I kind of assumed that that was what I was going to photograph. But like all things in life I serendipity steps in and the first big event I went to which was a multi-sport event in Italy in 2011 it was called the Masters Games. So it had lots and lots of different sports. Kind of like a mini Olympics and it just so happened that on day one I actually entered myself into the tennis thing. And I also got a press pass. But on day one I just happened to be at the bus stop trying to get to the registration center and completely clueless. And I was scooped up by this. The Irish sisters they were Irish identical twins in their late 70s who came to the bus stop and thought it was hilarious that I was panicking and too long they were both of them international older athletes and they took me along and then they dragged me out onto the field stadium and pushed me and one of the gates and said Go on go inside there and take some pictures. And that was how it started.
[00:04:16] So did you start off with any particular focus in mind. Alex.
[00:04:20] Well actually my main goal was not to offend any official and not to get struck by a flying athlete or a javelin or something because I knew nothing about track and field so I didn’t to the rules. So I mean the bar was pretty low me.
[00:04:37] But then what I wanted to see and to try and focus on was the weather with the faces and that’s sort of what struck me which was as a beginner and an outsider to the sport was the rather weird combination of people wearing track and field kind of skimpy little outfits which were used to seeing the lycra and all that but then being older and I thought wow you know you put these together and you have to do a double take when you look at the image because you think oh yes seen plenty of people doing high jump and then you take another look. Can you think. Yeah but I haven’t seen plenty of people with wrinkly faces and Leonce so I guess that was what I was trying to focus on.
[00:05:22] Now did you have any preference to shooting black and white or color. What was your saying through your lens. Because I can imagine that this would really be inspirational as a photographer myself I could see this being really inspiring to do something different.
[00:05:39] Well again the bar was very low. I was just trying to actually get a photograph that was in focus. I wasn’t a photographer. I didn’t know anything about photography and when I started I started out and decided that this was a gap in the market I’d like to fill and jump into. I’d kind of forgotten that I didn’t even have a camera. So I was on a very steep learning curve and I found myself a tutor and kind of learned the rudiments. But when I was in there I was holding this camera that I really didn’t totally understand and that in retrospect wasn’t truly up for the job and my my knowledge of photography was very limited to my knowledge of sports was really of the sports was very limited so it was a pretty kind of.
[00:06:26] Nerve wracking combo. But one I like I like being out there on the edge of my comfort zone and time was certainly on the edge way beyond that.
[00:06:33] Where did your interested in photography come from. Did you have any experience in photography at all prior to this.
[00:06:39] None whatsoever in taking photographs but I’d been previously an academic in the field of visual culture so I’d spent a lot of time looking at images and reading them as texts sort of decoding me. So I knew about how the image worked which really helped me when I came to take images of my own but I knew absolutely nothing nada about photography. I didn’t even know what an aperture was. I had to I found myself a tutor. I think she was totally bewildered by how anyone could know so little.
[00:07:12] So when you found a tutor how much guidance did she give you before you went out on your first shoot.
[00:07:17] Well she helped me.
[00:07:18] But now I look back I can see that she very wisely helped me not get something super super complicated because I I’m not the most techie with people and suddenly you know cameras are all singing all dances they’re dancing that very, very techie. So we got quite a simple camera.
[00:07:38] And I love my way around that but actually it wasn’t up to the job because what was happening I discovered with shooting track and field was you needed very far. You needed to take very fast very fast shots very quick.
[00:07:53] Yeah high shutter speeds.
[00:07:55] Those are the words I’m looking for. Thank you, thanks Chris. So yeah that was, and my camera wasn’t good enough but if I’d have if she’d have introduced me to the camera I’d got now which is all singing all dancing.
[00:08:10] I wouldn’t I wouldn’t have been able to cope with it. It would have been completely beyond me.
[00:08:14] Too many buttons.
[00:08:15] Absolutely too many buttons. Yeah. So it was a kind of learning curve but I still I still to start with. Found I could get you know some shots but I couldn’t really get the action shots that I was after.
[00:08:31] And that really interested me. And that struck me as so different from the kind of tennis immersion imagery that I always used to as a tennis player.
[00:08:39] So what do you look for now?
[00:08:41] What I look for now. I always always want to make sure I’ve got the face because the face is what shows a person’s age. And I think what you see in a sports woman’s face is focus and determination.
[00:08:59] A real sense of Life Fitness real sense of of being there irrespective of age. And I absolutely wanted to get that lifelessness really if I can call it that because it’s so in contrast to the kind of moribund care slumped in a chair image. And I think that’s what makes an older person a person’s face look interesting and attractive and makes them think well I’d like to hang out with this person have coffee with them full of life so I always wanted to get that. I love to get the combination if I can say somebody in their late 80s doing something improbable like hurdling or doing long jump or high jump something you wouldn’t expect or falling. I love getting older women feeling when they do long jump because we’re so used to the idea that an older woman on the ground flat out on the ground is something dangerous. You know we need to scoop her up and get her to HD. But actually you see these women in the late 80s in the 90s racing to the long jump and falling on the sand and then right as rain. So it makes you reshape your whole your whole concept of what aging is all about. Which is one of my driving forces. And enlightening comment actually on older women sports to get that perspective and to talk about the other sports such you’ve been covering Alex and your travels have taken you.
[00:10:24] Well my troubles have taken me all over Europe as far as Turkey, France, Germany various places in the U.K., Scandinavia and the other sports I have I have photographed older older people doing a certain craft indoor rowing that was a new things. I mean I photographed hockey I photographed football but that was known I saw the grass squash.
[00:10:52] I felt rough tennis but I keep coming back to track and field. And I can tell you why. If you’re interested the reason for that is that with track and field.
[00:11:03] This is the way I figured it out in my simple mind. The the person is naked. I mean they come there they don’t have a racket or a bat or they don’t have any implement that can mask their fitness level. They just got their body. So in tennis you can be you know you can you can be not in particularly good shape in your 70s or 80s but you can still play a killer game because you can do a killer dropshot but because you have racquet skills but in track and field you’ve just got your body and there’s something really moving about that you know it’s simple that you take yourself to the starting line.
[00:11:41] They they raised the done they they press the trigger it’s go and you just run. I mean that’s that’s it’s so naked it’s so straightforward. You know you stand there and there’s a bow and you have to jump over it or you try and jump vertically distance. I find that very pleasing.
[00:12:01] Yeah it’s a basic human sort of tribal instinct isn’t it. First thing to fight off fleet you run. Yeah. I had not thought of it in those terms but yeah you’re right.
[00:12:11] In terms of getting published then Alex, where have you marketed your work.
[00:12:15] Well that’s a really interesting point because when I first decided to do this site I had I felt I had to learn how to take a photograph I had to get a press pass to these events and to go and take photographs and I hadn’t kind of thought it through. I wasn’t really very goal oriented. I had those goals and then when I first then had my set of photographs and I thought oh great I’ve got photographs and then I just thought well now what how do I get anyone to look at them. And that was kind of back to the drawing board. So I started small and and did some local exhibitions. I offered photographs to my local doctors surgery the reception and they really they really liked them and somehow slowly slowly they got picked up by health care facilities because.
[00:13:10] People say that they’re inspiring for older older people who come to the hospital get sick. You know it’s quite good to sit there and think yep there are people maybe decades older than me who are still doing this stuff.
[00:13:23] So health care facilities have taken them up and it’s just kind of snowballs although that’s probably too big a word to use but it just built it up incrementally you know you start small and then people hear about you and then I had actually actually this summer I had a bit of luck it was serendipity again because this summer I took some photos of a big event which is the European Masters Athletics Championships in Denmark and it happened it was in August and it just so happened I was being interviewed on a local radio show about some local older persons sports event.
[00:14:03] When I came back and the producers said to me oh did you have a nice holiday. Because we had to arrange it round be going to Denmark. And I said holiday what are you talking about. You know I was this is what I was doing it was taking these photos.
[00:14:17] And he said Oh well that’s kind of interesting. So let’s talk about that rather than what we were going to talk about and as a result they asked me to send some photos for their website. We’re talking local BBC Radio here in the UK and they put them up on the local BBC website and the National BBC website got hold of them and liked them. And the interesting bit and the serendipity bit was it just so happened that it was at the same time as the World Athletics Championships for you know youngsters and so they were publishing photos of the world athletics stars and they profiles mine alongside they said. Meanwhile this is happening you know alongside and that got me to that that kind of got me to a big audience really. You know that’s I guess that’s how it works. I mean there’s a bit of planning there’s a bit of you know you try and put yourself out there and then there’s a bit of luck and. That. Happens. And then you have to drive people to your website of course where you have your portfolio and they can fly your images directly online and can they now.
[00:15:27] Look how they can buy my images. They can. I want to say by me I mean not that they can more I’m almost more interested or certainly as interested in people asking me to come and talk.
[00:15:43] At their organizations or whatever so I can show my images so that I can do a virtual make a virtual exhibition because it’s actually much easier to talk and show the images and get people to see a whole load of images than to cart them around and create an exhibition.
[00:16:00] And to be fair they’re not I don’t know that they’re the kind of images that people would put on the living room walls because their portraits really but the portraits of people you don’t know. That’s why I think I’m more suited to health care facilities or whatever. I mean I don’t want to put your listeners off buying them. So please do. Buy buy buy. But you know I did.
[00:16:25] I did a speaking tour in the States actually about three years ago and I spoke at various retirement villages and that was absolutely amazing. It was so interesting for me because at the same time as getting my pictures out to people that were probably the same sort of age I was also getting to see all these different retirement communities that you have in the States. And I was pretty blown away by that and I I would just you know I loved doing that you love to do more of that. That’s a plug by the way.
[00:17:02] That’s a shameless plug well done and shameless shameless.
[00:17:06] And of course now in the digital area one has to know about the software that goes with it it’s not just on the front end it’s the back and we’re no longer in the dark room we’re at our computers. So did you have to teach yourself the software to manage your or your photography.
[00:17:20] Yeah well I teach myself, I’ve got this team – a team that sounds very grand but I’ve pulled a lot of people help me so my photography tutor when we first started working together she was 25 and then I had somebody to help me with the what you call the back end you know the post-production go the stuff on figuring it out on the computer.
[00:17:42] And you know he’s a guy of 30 and and so on so I’ve got a few people that I phone in a sort of panicked way and they come in and help me. And not only the plus of that is that not only do they help me technically but it’s giving me access to a whole tranche of younger people you know I mean that sounds like a really old person’s thing to say but I guess I you know I’m going to be 17 next year. So for me it’s it’s an added bonus to have these people who were in their 20s early 30s. Come and give me a hand and joke with me and tell me about their lives at the same time. I mean it’s it’s full kind of.
[00:18:27] Added bonus. Now how far do you plan about the venture you’re going to. Do you have a schedule for the year. Well. Yes and no.
[00:18:36] I’m going to. The World Masters Athletics Championships this year is in Spain in September and I’m going there and that will be fabulous laughs because people will be coming from the States from Canada from Australia from New Zealand literally from South America from all over.
[00:18:52] And that happens I think every four years. And so anyway I’ll be at bat and I’m super excited about that. And in fact I’ve got a friend who I photographed she’s in the American team and she’s in her 80s. But we discovered we share a birthday. And so she calls me her little sister and she’s a real star. I have to say so I’m kind of trying to figure out if we’re going to stay at the same hotel or whatever. It’ll be fun. I mean at my stage in life. Again sounding ancient. If it’s not fun if I’m not getting all these added I don’t know why do it. So it’s going to be I’m going to get some great photos I’m sure. I hope but I’m going to have a wonderful experience of that. Part coming back to your question about how much do I plan what I try and do is plan the INS but leave enough flexibility so that I can just just go with the ride because I really don’t know where these where this is taking me.
[00:19:59] And for me that’s part of the fun.
[00:20:02] Did I know I was going to be talking to you Chris a couple of weeks ago. You know this is this is I like to have the flexibility so that I can. I don’t know the surprised and do things I’m not expecting I didn’t want to just predict what the whole year is going to be. You know what I’m going to be doing.
[00:20:21] Just to go with the flow and terms of commissions that its people are now seeing your work in and you’re probably getting a reputation for this. Alexa are you getting commissions from publications and websites.
[00:20:35] Am I getting commissions.
[00:20:37] I’m getting I’m getting asked to go and photograph events which I wasn’t. To start with to start with I used to have to sort of beg and plead and say Can I come and photograph your event. And now people are coming to me and saying Will you come and photograph a sports event. So that’s really nice.
[00:20:53] I’m also photographing some grassroots activity in my local community which I’m enjoying incredibly that’s the kind of other end of the spectrum and things of getting published kind of after the event. I mean I was profiled in Canon magazine. The camera people after they saw my pictures and BBC so they didn’t actually commission me before but then they saw my paragraphs and and did a feature on me and that was that was nice and kind of on the cusp I suppose we’re I’m just starting to be commissioned and especially for the filming.
[00:21:32] It’s on the cusp. Yeah. It’s starting to come so you’re going to very much be having a second career now. How long have you been doing it.
[00:21:39] So since I turned 60 and I’m sixty eight years is now. And yeah it takes that long I think. Which is a bit discouraging actually. You get to the stage you think oh my gosh I just take another eight years to. But yeah it very much feels like a second career. It very much feels like.
[00:22:00] I’m not retired. That’s for sure. And that’s a whole interesting thing about ageism that kicks in in the way that people talk to me as an older woman I suppose that I’m kind of as I’m doing this work. I’m feeling I want I am becoming and I want to become more of an activist because there is so much ageism out there.
[00:22:25] And I mean I could give you an example it just happened to me today. And I was outside and I bumped into somebody I know. And he said to me so what if he’d been up to lately. And I thought you know getting up to something is kind of like a little thing. I don’t think you’d ask Would you also not have a younger person wouldn’t you say. What are you doing or what are you engaged with or what projects are you working on. But as you get older you know people kind of ask you how are you spending your time you know how you passing your time what have you been up to kind of cooking that sort of attitude and not wanting to become really grumpy and say What do you mean what am i been up to.
[00:23:04] You know I’m doing earthshaking stuff. No I mean that would be obnoxious but to kind of just clock it and.
[00:23:12] Find some good way of replying. I don’t think I did find it this morning actually to be honest.
[00:23:17] With the athletes that you’re photographing what have they. But what is their reaction been to being photographed and published.
[00:23:26] It’s been so lovely I think because they train all year they train like any Olympic athlete 24/7 and then nobody sees them nobody bears witness to what they’re doing nobody publishes anything about them in the broader press let’s say.
[00:23:46] And so when I’ve had a few successes little successes and got so before that you know the BBC or whatever they’re so thrills.
[00:23:57] And it’s very it’s very humbling really. I realized at some point quite early on I published a book I wrote a book and published a book and I gave a copy of the book to everyone who was in it and that included some woman from Estonia in her late 80s she was then who was a world champion hammer throw.
[00:24:18] And when I found her and gave her the book we couldn’t speak to each other we had no common language. She you know she went bright pink and there were tears in her eyes and I thought. I thought gosh my job is actually bearing witness to these people because nobody else does actually. And it made me feel really good about it.
[00:24:40] And especially these field events you know track and field so track of the people that run around the track then that the field events which are things like throwing the hammer or javelin or whatever and they tend to be on stadiums that just teeny weeny little ones you know they’re going on at the same time as the track opens and there might be a handful of people mainly the family actually to be honest watching the track events. But there is nobody but nobody watching the field events.
[00:25:09] So when I’m there with my camera they really like it and they see me enough not having done it for seven eight years that I’m becoming a familiar figure. So to start with I think they were wary and they thought I was going to be trying to sell them my pictures. And when they realised that I wasn’t I was on a different sort of mission. They really like it and there’s a bit of banter you know a few of them have said to me well you should start doing this you know you should start running and actually have started running and because of the encouragement I got from some of these people so I took up running when I was about 60 465. And you know I haven’t discovered that I’m a brilliant champion runner. I struggle with it and I’m not a very good runner but I like it because when I see them they say Oh Alex how’s your training going. And I kind of like to think that we’re bumbling around the local park. What I do is training. It’s pretty much anything but that is really haphazard. But that’s been a fun thing you know.
[00:26:13] I’m getting a lot of unexpected add ons from doing this. I didn’t expect I’d get these new friends and then I didn’t expect I’d get another new activity which is running that I’d love so much. So it’s constantly surprising me and that’s part of the fun really.
[00:26:32] Well I was going to ask you exactly that if they inspired you to take up any other sport. So running is what do you have any of the sports that you’re following now or that you would like to have to go have a go at and that we also like to photograph that you haven’t done already.
[00:26:48] Well it tends to be that I do photograph them and then I think I’d like to have a go.
[00:26:52] So I was invited to photograph the British National Indoor road championships last month. I kind of I didn’t know anything about intermarrying so it was weird. I mean what on earth is indoor rowing about. And basically it’s in the Velodrome outside London it was in this wonderful wonderful venue and it involves sitting on indoor rowing machines and being hooked up to big overhead screens where you end up competing with the other people who are rowing at the same time. So it actually does have. It’s it’s it’s it is a competition and so I was I was photographing the rovers and they were all ages there and I thought it looked like really good fun. And I’ve tweaked my knee actually not running but I’ve also recently taken a tally. Can you believe it. And Sarah took my knee at that. So the indoor rowing is actually quite good on the joints. So also I have a lot and I have actually taken that up I started doing that taken it up that’s a very grand way of doing it.
[00:27:58] I bumble along to my gym and I’ve had a look at the instructions on the website of the Indoor Rowing of the rowing federation the British one I’m sure the US ones got a brilliant website and I kind of just started and I really I quite like it.
[00:28:15] In fact I really like it. So I think I’m going to build that into my my personal fitness regimen if I can put it like that.
[00:28:24] So who knows what the future holds. And Alex as you’d find sports that you can cover and you might take up a whole new world for you.
[00:28:32] It’s totally a whole new world. That’s what makes it so fun. I don’t know if that’s due to the fact that I’m at that stage in my life you know when you were younger. Maybe you have to control your career more you know you’re more concerned about your family your bills and everything else as you get older maybe you get freedom. So I’ve kind of I’d just rather let go and I’m letting it take me where once too. And I’m having a blast.
[00:29:01] And you’re blogging about it too on your web site.
[00:29:05] But I am blogging a bit. I’m confessing here. I have to get another nice young person to come and help me with the Web site. And I don’t keep up as much as I should. It kind of overwhelms me the techie side you know. So I do. I do blog but not enough I’m very inconsistent.
[00:29:32] So but I do and I like to I like to I like to kind of keep track of my observations. Yeah.
[00:29:40] And of course it’s well illustrated with your photographs too so it sounds like you’re having a lot of fun. Alex and it’s great that there’s more coverage now of women and older people older women in sports doing so many different things and making them more visible. So thank you for your contribution. Maybe we could share some of your images on our Web site too.
[00:30:02] Oh that would be fun. Thank you so much. It’s been great talking to you. Chris thank you so much.
[00:30:06] Thank you for coming on the program we appreciate you taking the time and the very best of luck with it.
[00:30:11] Thank you, thank you entirely my pleasure. Thanks.
[00:30:15] And you can pair a lot more of these conversations from women who are Transcending Sport at wispsports.com and also by downloading with sports radio on your podcast player. And just one of the 30 shows that we have at WiSP Sports Radio. We also have a new morning show on the anchor app you download that on your mobile device you can actually call into the show five days a week at 8:30 Eastern. I’m joined by different guest cohost to discuss the very latest news in women’s sports. That’s on the Anchor app. And as always we’d love to hear from you if you have any comments questions or suggestions. Drop us a line to info at sports dot com and you can follow us of course on all the social media channels at sports and we’ll go next time. Thank you for listening.