German photographer Mirja Maria Thiel rediscovered her love of photography during motherhood, finding the camera the perfect tool to record the moment and make sense out of the growing complexity and demanding nature of family life. Aware of the ephemeral nature of life itself, photography became a means to manage the melancholia that dwelled within, acting as a balm for the emotional chaos by preserving the ever-fleeting moments of life.
Thiel came to professional photography late in life, and found inspiration in the words of American photographer Alec Soth: “To me the most beautiful thing is vulnerability, and there are definitely people who are willing to expose that.” For Thiel emotion, compassion, and integrity are the foundation upon which she builds her documentary work, using the share understanding of our most intense and intimate depths to channel her passion for life.
In her on-going series All This Love, Thiel explores the many faceted experience of love that exists among couples later in life, celebrating the lasting sense of joy, affection, and desire that elders continue to enjoy. Her intimate portraits break long-standing taboos that have made sexuality and eroticism among the senior set something rarely seen or talked about. Here Thiel shares her journey making portraits of the silver haired people living their best lives in their golden years.
Could you speak about what inspired you to focus on telling the stories of elders in the community?
“The memory of my beloved grandma has been a subtle driving force. My grandma has been a very important figure in my life. As an early widow she spend a lot of time in our family, caring for my brother and me when my mother went to work. She had a sunny, open-minded attitude towards life and people in general what made her an asked companion and guest to many people.
“She kept her lively attitude until old age, and connected to new people all the time. I thought she would live until hundred years old — at least. But she died quiet unexpectedly of an aggressive brain tumor. Some symptoms like depression and trouble in finding words were quite similar to Alzheimer’s. She taught me not to fear aging but to welcome it as a natural journey full of emotions and experiences, full of stories worth to be told.”
What drew you to the subjects of intimacy, sexuality, and eroticism, and inspired you to begin to work on the series All This Love?
“Danish photojournalist Mads Nissen led the International Class and was the instructor of a seminar on ‘Storytelling With a Personal Vision’ in summer 2017. I intended to portray the mature love and every day life of an old artist couple in my neighborhood. Mads reminded me that the love this couple shares for so many years has to go along with an image of physical intimacy.
“I was reminded of my grandma again who fell in love with her late husband’s friend when she was aged about 70. She began to live a relationship with this man until his death five years later. So, this is the background for the theme of eroticism and sexuality in old age.
“I had investigated the importance of sexuality in old age when reading a lot of literature about Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and the implications this disease has for the afflicted individual concerning individual rights, dignity and social participation. As discussed in a German book called Dementia and Law, sexuality does not end with dementia. Every human being has a right to act out his sexuality as long as it does not violate other people’s right of integrity.”
Why do you think there is such a strong taboo against this subject in the public discourse?
“The ambivalent responses I receive towards my project still surprise me. Within the photo community it is appreciated, whereas the feedback I receive in everyday life is far less enthusiastic. Silence is the most common reaction when I mention this project. Sometimes people are concerned what actually happens in front of my camera, if there is real sex or they start to concentrate on the voyeuristic aspect, discussing my role as a photographer and how I feel behind the camera. I cannot remember a single conversation about the beauty of physical love, of the need of eroticism in old age.
“The idea of old flesh unified in erotic passion may unnerve people as well. We are not used to seeing aging bodies in the media or the arts that often. Its normal decline clashes with the idea of the well-shaped body advertised and lived out in sexual and erotic contexts.
“In society, I suppose, the religion belief of sexuality connected to fertility is still alive. This is especially central to women who usually have stopped being fertile in their mid 40s. On the contrary, a man’s fertility can last longer and therefore his active sexuality in old age causes less fuss.”
How did you connect with the couples features in this series?
“I searched for weeks during the workshop with Mads Nissen until I remembered a sculptor in my hometown teaching nude painting to students aged 60 and older. She introduced me to my first couple, Irene and Günter. I photographed them in the summer of 2017.
“To find couples I have advertised in supermarkets in my home area, in the important local newspaper, asked friends and colleagues, and talked to some sex therapists. I learned about the second couple, Nila and Engelbert from Berlin, through another photographer. She advised me to get in touch with a well-known sexual therapist in Hamburg who made educational films about love. The therapist gave me Nila’s number; she had participated in one of the films and was very open to meet me. I photographed Nila and Engelbert in December 2017, then I let the series rest and concentrated on other projects.
“In June 2020, I visited Irene and Günter and they introduced me to Lilly and her transgender partner Waltraud. I met them during their vacation at the German seaside in early July 2020. I live not that far from the coast and could visit them twice: The first time just to get to know them, the second time I made my photographs.
“The biggest challenge with All This Love was and still is to find couples aged around 70 and beyond who feel comfortable enough to share intimate moments of their relationship.”
Lastly, could you speak about something you discovered through this project that you would not have otherwise understood about love, relationship, sex, and aging?
“Aging together is a journey also characterized by hard work. All three couples experienced times of hardship in their relationships. What I took from the project is that deepened understanding, the comfort of shared memories and the erotic confidence of the partner’s extensively explored body are the reassuring pillow to cuddle up on together in old age.”
All images: © Mirja Maria Thiel