Have you ever stared at a nature photo of an animal hiding in plain sight and had an almost impossible time trying to separate the creature from the background?
Camouflage (a.k.a. cryptic coloration) is an adaptive mechanism that helps organisms to blend in with their surroundings. It can be a life-saving form of self-defense. But when the camera lens captures senior citizens as integral, interconnected parts of the landscape they inhabit, it can also become a life-affirming revelation of self-expression.
Eyes as Big as Plates, a conceptual collaborative photography project between Finnish and Norwegian artists Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth started off as a riff on traditional Nordic folklore.
Ikonen, who’d been looking for a way to reinterpret the tales of trolls and magic creatures became intrigued by Hjorth’s photo series of Norwegian grandmothers and reached out to her.
After the two hooked up, the focus of the project evolved. “In the beginning, we were trying to illustrate certain phenomena—folklore, stories, figures from myth,” Ikonen told the BBC.
But the pair soon realized they were onto something that spoke to the bigger picture about the ways in which the elderly are seen—or perhaps more accurately not seen—and valued by society; one that might hold a deeper universal significance than a simple reimagining of regional mythology.
Throughout history, elders have been traditionally revered for their experience and wisdom. Now, however, seniors often admit they feel as if they’ve been erased from the larger cultural conversation. But, by incorporating older models as almost sculptural elements into their compositions, Ikonen and Hjorth have created a body of work that takes ostensibly invisible individuals and makes them the center of attention.
Featured models are imbued with an eye-popping, organic connection to the environment. The result? Each stunning portrait reflects a personal narrative acknowledged and venerated rather than a life story dismissed and forgotten.
Since 2011, the globetrotting pair has traveled extensively, setting up their tripods to capture their sometimes whimsical, sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes deeply moving scenarios everywhere from Norway, Finland, Sweden, Greenland, Iceland, the Czech Republic, France, the United States, Great Britain, the Faroe Islands, South Korea, Japan, Senegal, and Tasmania.
The cast of characters they’ve cataloged includes former farmers, fishermen, zoologists, plumbers, opera singers, housewives, artists, academics—and even a 90-year-old novice parachutist.
“We just try to work with whatever the people we interview bring, wherever they are,” Hjorth told BBC.
“We might be in Paris, and you might be at an opera soiree evening and there might be an old lady dancing, the last person on the dance floor,” Ikonen told CNN Style. “And you just think: Who is this fascinating person I have to meet? You approach them and ask, ‘Who are you and what are you doing tomorrow?’”
For those fascinating people who take the visionary shutterbugs up on the challenge, more often than not, that means finding themselves communing with nature in a manner they’d never imagined, and ultimately, being celebrated for posterity in ways they could never have dreamed of.