“I wanted to show that there was a fuller, more nuanced and definitely more optimistic side to getting older.” It’s not all about youth: photographer Alex Rotas talks about ageism in sport and how she captures a different side to the world of athletics
Photography by Alex Rotas
A photographer for 12 years, Alex Rotas was inspired to take up photography in order to capture shots of older athletes as she was unable to find positive images of them online. Her work as a photographer, speaker and writer proves that it’s not just youth who can represent sports in a meaningful way. Alex’s emotional and moving photographs, especially of track and field, have helped transform the perception of older athletes, empowering them and giving them a voice. More recently she has expanded her creative work by collaborating with filmmaker Danielle Sellwood on a project called Maverick Generation which makes films about older athletes.
Glorious: Tell us about your journey into photography.
Alex Rotas: I’ve been photographing older, elite athletes for 12 years now. That was when I took up my first camera after being dismayed by the kinds of pictures of older people that dominated Google images the moment I put a search in with the word ‘older’ in it. ‘Older sportsmen and women’ revealed no connection to sport at all. I was aghast and thought this was a massive gap that would be fun to start trying to rectify.
Glorious: What story do you want to tell through your images?
Alex Rotas: All the images that I found 12 years ago showed older people gloomily stuck in chairs, dependent on the care of others. They were very passive, rather than active. I knew that older athletes would show a different story and it was one that I felt definitely needed portraying. I wanted to show that there was a fuller, more nuanced and definitely more optimistic side to getting older. There may be limitations and decline but this is only part of the story, not the whole thing. Yet twelve years ago, the visual evidence seemed to suggest this was all that lay ahead. I knew that sport would reveal a different, joyful and empowered story: one where we can set ourselves new goals and demanding physical ones too, as well as make new friends, travel to new places and relish new experiences and achievements.
Glorious: You have photographed a variety of sports, but much of your work focuses on track and field athletics. Is this a personal interest, did you compete yourself?
Alex Rotas: No, I’ve always been a poor track and field athlete. Tennis is my sport and I’ve played competitively in my youth and also at Masters (senior) level. I’m attracted to track and field because it’s so wonderful to photograph. Competitors turn up, line up at the starting line, the gun goes, and they’re off. There’s no hiding. Or they tackle the high or long jump event, or throw, or whatever. There are no racket skills to hide behind, or killer drop shots that win the point for you without you having to run. In track and field, everything comes down to the athlete’s fitness. I love that. And of course it’s great to photograph.
Glorious: Ageism bias is probably at its most acute when it comes to women in sport, but do you think this is changing at all? Who and or what are the culprits?
Alex Rotas: Sexism in sport is being chipped away. It’s exposed now, it’s a ‘thing’ that we can all talk about and address. We didn’t have the achievements of the Lionesses 12 years ago, nor did we have female umpires overseeing men’s matches at Wimbledon, or officiating in men’s Test cricket matches, for example, nor did we have the predominance of women commentators in sport generally. Ageism compounds sexism: silver-haired Hollywood actors have longer staying power and continue to take on different roles to their female counterparts, though this too is slowly changing. Thank heavens.
Glorious: How do you choose the subjects for your work and how would you describe your photography style?
Alex Rotas: I love seeing older women pushing themselves to achieve in the sport they love. I’ll turn my lens to a particular competitor and hope to capture her passion as well as her athleticism. And her age of course. It’s when you show emotion in your images that they have the power to move the viewer. I don’t think I’m a classic sports photographer as I tend to zoom in and crop quite close in on the individual. This means I leave out some of the contextual information that traditional sports photographers often like to include. It’s very important to me to show the athlete’s face. I don’t have a catch-all phrase to describe my style I’m afraid. You decide!
Glorious: What impresses you most about the athletes that you photograph and what can all women learn from them?
Alex Rotas: That’s an easy one. What impresses me most of all about the athletes I photograph is discovering that they are not super-human. They face the same health and life issues as the rest of us: they may experience strokes, cancers, heart problems and joint replacements. But they treat these as obstacles to get over. They look to the other side and to returning to the sport they love and the community that has become a second family to them. All of us can learn from them in this regard. I’m certainly trying to.
Glorious: How easy is it for you to capture emotions – tell us about some of the joyous highlights?
Alex Rotas: Capturing emotional highlights is easy when you go to masters events with your camera. They are joyfests! Seeing athletes meet up together, whether at national or international competitions, is one big photo opportunity if you like photographing hugs. The friendships they make are glorious in themselves. Then there is the joy of achievement. Just pointing your lens at the finishing line is always going to provide some wonderful moments. Last summer, the first post-lockdown World Masters Athletics Championships were held in Finland and it was as much a joyous highlight for me to be there as it was for the athletes. I photographed hugs and did my fair share of hugging too.
Glorious: Have you photographed younger athletes competing? If so, what key differences do you find between younger and older athletes, the competitiveness and camaraderie between them?
Alex Rotas: I’ve done a bit of school sports photography for friends and family and loved it. The amazing thing was that I felt the kind of images I got were the same, whether the athlete was seven or 70. I haven’t photographed an open event: that would be fun to do and I bet you’d find more similarities than differences there too. Elite athletes, whether young or old, tend to respect each other as they know the tough training that has to be done to get you to the big events. When I watch the major championships on TV I see so much in terms of the effort, emotion and community that I recognise from the Masters Championship competitions.
Glorious: If you could photograph any professional athlete, who would you choose and why?
Alex Rotas: I’ve been watching Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko in action at the Australian Open tennis championships and I think she’d be fabulous to photograph. Her facial expressions are something else! What a treat for any photographer. I also love seeing the extraordinary athleticism – speed, power and agility – she exhibits despite carrying more weight than most tennis players and that in itself breaks down the stereotype that you can only be one size if you’re a professional athlete at the top of your game. Loving that.
Glorious: You work on a project called Maverick Generation in collaboration with filmmaker Danielle Sellwood. Tell us about this.
Alex Rotas: I am collaborating with Danielle on a full-length documentary film called Younger that looks at the lives of four women aged between 69 and 86 as they train for and compete in Masters athletics events. They are all extraordinary, ordinary women, who face the life issues so many of us can face. Nonetheless, their love for their sport shines through every aspect of their lives. Danielle is a wonderfully sensitive filmmaker, a former GB canoeist herself, so someone with a lifetime of professional experience in the field of women’s sport who also knows what it takes to be an elite sportswoman. I’m absolutely thrilled to be working alongside her in this project. We’ve called the film Younger as it follows on from a short, six-minute film Danielle made about my work, called Older. It’s due for release in the first half of this year – soon, in other words, so do watch out for it!
Glorious: When you’re not travelling around the world taking photographs or promoting active ageing, do you partake in any exercise or sports?
Alex Rotas: I’m rehabbing some bad sciatica that knocked me sideways last year so I’m not yet back on the tennis court, but I hope to be there soon. Meanwhile I do Pilates, work out with an amazing trainer, swim laps and have recently discovered the joys of Nordic Walking. Trust me, this is by no means the soft option I used to think it was. It’s a lovely way to make new friends too as you can chat to your fellow walkers. It’s also great for loosening up your lower back so, all in all, it’s just what I need right now.
Glorious: If you could invite four inspirational women to dinner, who would they be and why?
Alex Rotas: Much as there are figures on the world stage who I look up to with enormous admiration, I realise, thinking about this question, that the women who inspire me the most are the ones I’m closest to and whose lives are more intertwined with mine. So I’d invite my two adult daughters, Danae and Lena, both of whom plough their own furrow and live very individual lives in different countries with far more courage than I ever had. I’d also invite my 13-year-old granddaughter Dione, who constantly amazes me with her warmth, her unique insights and wisdom; I’d like to look to the future as we sit around the table and I’d feel it’s in good hands if she is representative of her generation. And I’d invite my friend Evi, who’s dealing with sudden serious illness with quite inspirational grace, generosity and fortitude.
Glorious: What’s next for Alex Rotas?
Alex Rotas: Late last year, I started photographing masters track cyclists as they compete in the velodrome. This is a wonderful new photographic challenge for me and another great bunch of people to get to know. I’m very excited about doing more. This year I want to spread my wings further and venture into other new-to-me sports. I’m hoping to get a book of my photographs of masters track and field athletes published too so I’m working hard on that. And I want to get back on the tennis court; that’s a big personal goal for me.