Jean, Day Away participant. Taken during a day of shooting at the NDG Senior Citizen’s Council, October 2015.

One of the most important things for me as I conduct tech/photo workshops … is to introduce participants to the technology in a way that doesn’t dumb it down but also doesn’t intimidate them.

I am a PhD candidate at Concordia University focused on the use of visual communication media by women as a way to explore and analyze their subjectivization. My dissertation, young women’s self-imag(in)ing, 1996-2001: historicizing feminist image-based practices and the internet before social media, aims to revive a history of the internet that is left out of most discourses. The thesis title presents the breadth of the project, which attempts to revise and realize a rigorous theorization of feminist art that used proto-social media forms in the process, creation, and circulation of its production. My methodological approach, among other things, is intersectional and feminist; an approach that I have always assumed to be inclusive especially in its critical self-reflection. Despite my commitment to intersectionality, I have recently encountered a blind spot. I’ve come to realize how ageist my own research has been. The short piece to follow is an update from a presentation I gave at the Ageing Research at Concordia Symposium in October 2015.

It may sound un-academic and hyperbolic of me to start with how ACT (Ageing, Communication, Technology) changed my life. But it has — in theory and in practice. My work with and alongside elders has changed my work focus and has changed my perspective as a scholar.

In October 2014 I was invited to hold a two-part photography and portrait workshop with members of RECAA (Respecting Elders: Communities Against Abuse). The members of RECAA vary in age, up to about 90. The workshop’s intent was two-fold: 1) to teach RECAA members about digital SLRs and help them become comfortable with cameras in general;  2) to teach them the basics of photography and the essentials for taking a strong portrait. To prepare for the workshop, I produced what I thought was a straightforward photography primer. Shortly after I arrived, I realized that this wouldn’t work, so I scrapped my lesson plan and improvised with something that would fit the participants’ needs. This flexibility made for a productive workshop and produced some stellar portraits (and art critics!). Some of the members became interested in buying a digital point and shoot camera, while others were excited to try out their digital cameras at home — cameras they felt too intimated to use before they took the workshop.

One of the most important things for me as I conduct tech/photo workshops (something I have been doing with kids and adults for many years) is to introduce participants to the technology in a way that doesn’t dumb it down but also doesn’t intimidate them. As soon as participants in any sort of learning setting are intimated, or rather, their learned intimidation of the tech is reinforced, you lose them and their trust in you is difficult to bring back. When working with elders, it’s important to have a particular sensitivity to their life experience, their knowledge, and the ways in which they have been systematically and systemically excluded from the cultural production that requires ‘new media’. This ‘new media’, that is everywhere around them.

For me, the final product became less vital as the process of creating the documentary, which included feedback from the elders. Through the process, elders had a chance to see themselves reflected in images and as part of a visual culture at large. While we were shooting the documentary, I decided to flip the viewfinder away from my eyes to theirs so that some of the participants could see what I was filming (as most of them also assumed I was taking photos and not video). This became one of the main activities for the rest of the time I was shooting. They would tell me to tilt the camera or move it until they found their “good side”, etc. They would wave into the viewfinder, and perform for it while being able to see what was being filmed. The dynamic between me, the participants, and the camera changed after that point. They were much more willing to be filmed and now wanted the camera to be filming their activities.

Every week after we worked on editing the video, Sherry showed her groups the updated product and reported back to me the zeal with which the elders watched the videos. The videos gave them a chance to watch themselves and watch their peers on a screen – something that is common for younger generations and not common for older generations. Sometimes they wanted her to replay the video several times as they have lunch or engage in conversation.

There is power in seeing yourself (or a relatable identity) in media. This has been studied and analyzed for many decades. So, it is not surprising that this is the reaction of the elders I was working with.  Some of the elders are aware of the power of the media and of images. But how does that culture reflect aging?  It certainly doesn’t cater to elders, and why not?

As a researcher with ACT, I hope to develop future workshops with elders to a) teach them media literacy and b) provide the resources for them to insert themselves into the tech and internet imaginary so they can make choices about representation. In conjunction with this, I hope to also produce research that interrogates the ways women elders are using (or not using) image-based tech, and explore why. The latter expands my over arching mode of inquiry “focused on the use of visual communication media by women as a way to explore and analyze their subjectivization” to include elders in an intersectionally-integrated pursuit that wouldn’t have been able to happen without working with elder communities.

Magdalena Olszanowski is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University and a RA for ACT. You can find more about her and her work on the website