Try to imagine what life was like in the late 1800s. It seems unfathomable that living in 2006 we could come in direct contact with that era. Jerry Friedman has. Not once, but sixty-two times. Not by some magical time machine but through the lens of his camera and the size of his heart. The passionate 58yo has spent the past four years on a self-funded expedition to the far reaches of the earth photographing and documenting the stories of the world’s oldest people, capturing their beautifully wrinkled portraits and undeniable spirit.
As Jerry discovered, this minority known as supercentenarians (110yo or older) are ordinary people who have achieved extraordinary ages and in turn, have amazing life stories bridging three centuries. Along the way Jerry bonded with a Japanese woman who recalls hanging laundry on the day the Hiroshima bomb hit, a 110yo Tibetan Buddhist lama who still had all his teeth, the daughter of two slaves from a plantation in the South, and a man who grew up in a log house that had been constructed by the local Native Americans. Unearthing these accounts, Jerry grasped the importance of the human race hearing these stories, celebrating these “human time capsules”. Fulfilling this dream is the book Earth’s Elders: The Wisdom of the World’s Oldest People.
It profiles Jerry’s remarkable and unprecedented journey from the steppes of Mongolia to Portugal and the elders he met along the way.
Driven to have their voices heard in this fast-paced jungle the elders have propelled Jerry even further. He established the Earth’s Elders Foundation in 2004, a non-profit foundation that published the book and is dedicated to raise awareness and improve the lives of the elderly across the globe. Testament to the impact of Jerry’s exploits is a school curriculum focusing on the elders that is soon to be rolled out across North East America with plans for the rest of the States within a year, and one day the world… In recognition of the entire project’s importance, the United Nations will host a major two- month show of the portraits and biographies in New York later this year.
“This is clearly the law of unintended consequences,” laughs Jerry, describing the astonishing evolution of this project from original concept to worldwide recognition. “It’s like driving off down a road to do something and ending up on the other side of
For the vegetarian who lives in Connecticut, the accolades do not validate his decision to dedicate his life to the elderly cause. Instead, the journey itself and conversing with our oldest custodians of wisdom has made his life that much richer. He confesses, “Part of it for me has been an enormous learning experience. My attitudes have changed radically… I’m certainly not as self-involved as I was before and I say that with no remorse. It has really enlightened me.” Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jerry grew up with dreams to be a painter. A brutally honest girlfriend told him he would “starve as an artist” and instead, steered him towards photography. As Jerry recalls, “She was a model with Ford Models in New York and suggested I take up the camera… to still use my eyes but at least make a living out of it.”
Arriving in New York, Jerry developed his craft from assisting to photographing high-end advertising with innovative agencies such as Young and Rubicam, Ogilvy & Mather, and Saatchi & Saatchi. His widely regarded talent projected him from print and magazine work, into television where he became a successful director. Yet at a certain point it lost its “lustre”. He admits with frankness, “I was not being particularly satisfied with just earning for earnings sake.” So he pulled the plug and stopped working at the age of forty. ‘Kicking around’ for a while, Jerry decided to spend four days ‘embedded’ in his mother’s assisted facility. He became an unintentional bystander to a community of “very isolated people who were very lonely”, concluding this “elder ghetto” to be not too dissimilar to a prison. “People go in, don’t come back out and very few people go to visit them. I certainly don’t want it for them and I certainly don’t want it for me when I get there.”
Unlike others who turn a blind eye to this social issue, Jerry instead turned his eye to his camera. The initial idea was to capture portraits of the older residents, dictate their life story, and hopefully make these isolated people feel a sense of connection to the world. Only in its infancy, the momentum the Earth’s Elders Foundation has already procured is astounding, yet like many other great humanitarians before him, Jerry is humble about his personal efforts. He eloquently sums up the basic act we should all implement to ensure a better future for not only the elders of today, but the elders of tomorrow … us.
“It takes nothing to produce an emotion in someone except to pay attention…If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to honour our elders.”
How did you go about locating the supercentenarians?
I found this gerontologist in Atlanta, Dr Robert Young. He’s part of a loose group of international demographers and gerontologists [the Gerontology Research Group], which keeps a global database of supercentenarians. He opened up his databank to me. It was the key. From him, I was able to determine where lived various supercentenarians whom he had validated.
Do you still document and photograph supercentenarians?
When I can. Three weeks ago I found and photographed an Italian man living in the States. The day before I arrived he was out shovelling snow. He’s 110yo and was in amazing shape. It gives you a different perspective on history when you hear it from someone rather than reading it in a book. I’ve photographed sixty- two of what Dr Young estimates as between three to four hundred people that could potentially be validated as over 110yo. It’s a pinprick in terms of the world’s population of close to seven billion people. Dr Young says I’ve probably met more of the oldest people on Earth than any other person, ever. And there are still more to come.
What has been your most memorable moment to date?
Literally every single person I have met has given me another piece of information. It has really been an accumulative process.
What has been the greatest challenge you have had to overcome to get to where you are today?
I’m still trying to overcome it: it is prejudice. There is enormous prejudice against the elderly. It continues to be an uphill battle in terms of getting any recognition. Hurricane Katrina was metaphorical as exposing the soft underbelly of this culture. We saw the disenfranchised of the poor and elderly who were just abandoned and left to die. I address this issue every day. It’s an uphill battle to make others wake up and really see the people who have brought them into this world, and that they deserve to be treated better. The supercentenarians I document are the poster people for the elderly.
Why do you care?
In part because I see a major injustice. This is one where I can make a change. It does take individuals to make change. If the idea makes sense it will resonate with people and in this case, it has around the world. I’m very focused on doing something that I really love doing and where I’m making a change. Who’s to say if it’s going to happen but at the very least I want to believe that I can and that’s enough to keep me focused. If you dream, maybe it might happen. If you don’t dream it’s definitely not going to happen so you may as well dream.
What are your spiritual beliefs?
I’m an amalgamation. I guess I’m very close to the thinking of Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota tribe, Dakota. His beliefs are very general and very spiritual. He believes in balance, doing the right thing, a connection between humans and the Earth, and respect. I believe in being nice to your neighbour and doing the right thing.
Where do you find peace in life?
In nature. I’m out here on a farm at this very moment.
What are your words of wisdom?
It is actually in the front of my book: ‘We are who they were, and they are who we will be.’ But in terms of wisdom, the elderly have taught me so much. They’ve taught me to listen, not just to hear things.
To support Earth’s Elders Foundation visit www.earthselders.org