No more fictitious ageing. Positive ageing is not enough: we need authenticity in photographic representation of older adults

In her recent book, Frances West, the former Chief Accessibility Officer at IBM, introduced the concept of authenticity around the inclusion debate. West's question was a simple and crucial one. Can we really talk about inclusion if we don't translate that practice into reality? What's the point of inclusion if those who are included are only included on bulletin reports and on paper, but not in practice and on executive boards?



As West discussed, if we really want to introduce and promote a new narrative of ageing and longevity, the theme of authenticity (in an era of media exposure, fake news, and a culture that rests on appearances) is, in my opinion, the pivotal issue on which to invest our energies.

Many of us are doing research and are proactively trying to build a new narrative: one capable of identifying and dismantling the stereotypes that prevent us from building a more equitable society, one that respects the dignity of the individual, one that is more inclusive and contemporary. Photographic iconography is one of the most important areas of intervention we must prioritise. Photographs help to sustain a cult of image, are evocative and immediate, and so are an intensely important medium we need to rethink.

From positive ageing to fictitious ageing

The literature on the image of ageing has revealed to us the good and constructive effects that result when we are exposed to positive representations of old age. Suggesting a new image of ageing, one far from the greyness, the loneliness, and the equation that old=healthcare, and closer to the multidimensional reality of life, regardless of age, has promoted an idea of diversity, richness, and the multiplicity of the different stages of life. These positive consequences occurred as individuals internalised the positive age stereotypes to become their own perception of personal ageing.

However, this phenomenon of positive ageing has, at times, gone beyond its original intentions and resulted in what I define as “fictitious ageing”, i.e. when an image or a situation is so extremely positive that it is no longer credible.

You know the type: older couples or singles permanently smiling, almost always with perfect teeth, often in convertible cars, sitting eating bowls of inviting ice cream, screaming happily while sitting on rollercoasters, drinking glasses of champagne on beaches at sunset, embracing in tender gestures of love, with strange improbable hats on their heads, in Hawaiian shirts, always running marathons, in business meetings on the top floor of some skyscraper or in the coolest offices of WeWork. It is also important to note that due to the endemic and unacceptable lack of diversity in the media, what we describe as the process of ‘addition’ has begun. In recent years, photography has become enriched with encounters between people of different genders, races, physical abilities, and sexual orientations. Whilst this process is an important and necessary one, it is important to strike a balance between political correctness and using photography to capture truth and authenticity.

The issue is not whether these situations happen in reality. Of course they happen. The issue is how these situations are represented and if we can accurately judge their authenticity.

The negative effects of extremely positive ageing, a lack of cultural diversity, and ageism in the communication industry

In the face of hundreds of research papers on the concept of the beneficial effects of positive ageing, there are far fewer that explore the effects of extremely positive ageing or fictitious ageing. One of these entitled “Positive Portrayals of Old Age Do Not Always Have Positive Consequences” demonstrates what have suspected:

Benefits no longer occur for portrayals that are too positive. In fact, extremely positive portrayals lowered older adults’ downstream memory performance and attracted less attention when they perceived the portrayals as being unrealistic. These findings have practical implications: Media professionals and public health campaigners should caution against portraying older adults in extremely positive light. Future studies should further explore the effectiveness and consequences of extremely positive portrayals of older adults on communication and public health outcomes” […] “In addition, our findings caution that showing extremely positive portrayals of old age may backfire … Older adults also tend to pay less attention to these portrayals when they perceive them as unrealistic.

We must add a fundamental reading filter to this. There is solid evidence that views on ageing, ideas, values, and customs differ radically across cultures. This is also indirectly confirmed by the fact that most studies in this field have focused on individual differences in perceptions of ageing within mostly Western cultures. If we add to this the fact that the sources of photographic iconography circulating on Planet-Media come from image banks managed mainly by Anglo-Saxon organizations, it goes without saying that image of fictitious ageing is further amplified by a partial, marginal, and, in the vast majority of cases, Western cultural correspondence. If it is already difficult to recognise and accept oneself from a hyper-non-realistic situational representation, this becomes completely impossible when it refers to stereotypes of cultures far from our own. What do Portuguese, Chinese, Indian, and Italians have to do with those glossy images of happy older adults in Florida in their convertible Chevrolet? Little or nothing.

Finally, if it is clear that it is not enough to put images of the elderly to represent them, it is also clear that an image of authenticity is not enough to change the narrative. Strategic systems of creativity and marketing and communications capable of interpreting new languages and bringing that narrative into our daily lives in a non-artificial way are needed. It’s a matter of involving brands and the image industry that suffers from the common evil of our time by adding gerontophobia and youthism at all costs, as a recent debate involving WPP has clearly demonstrated. Beyond agencies, such as the newly-founded Older, that have chosen to dedicate themselves to fighting an ageist logic and to explicitly help brands intercept and correctly develop “missing” narratives, I don’t think the real point is whether advertising agencies tend towards youthfulness in order to demonstrate their “freshness”, but rather that they are unable to leverage an intergenerational narrative first within their own organisations to help reflect this day-to-day experience in their communication deliveries. Only if we know how to build narrative bridges between generations will we be able to communicate a future that is more compatible with the demographic reality we are facing, and with the needs of a more balanced, connected, participatory society as the COVID-19 pandemic has, in some ways, flagged to us. And not this demagogic future that we all buy sight unseen and that takes for granted that ideas are young and that the ideas of the young are better than those of the old. Ideas are either good or bad. And I have learned that they become better when they generate new ideas born of sharing, rather than assumption.

What to do

In recent years a number of initiatives have tried to help those of us desperately looking for authentic images which undermine the common stereotype and instil an image of ageing that is closer to reality, more credible, and therefore more effective in establishing a new narrative. Launched a few years ago, The Disrupt Aging Collection, released by Getty Images in collaboration with AARP, has certainly the merit not only of having raised the issue, but also of having proposed images of high narrative and photographic quality (the latter being the same that we demand of any photograph: authenticity should not be confused with low quality)  that are certainly more credible, truer, and less extreme. A few weeks ago, in the wake of this initiative, the Centre for Ageing Better followed the same process with the Age-Positive image library project to generate a new series of images capable of narrating a reality that is truer and more culturally acceptable to the Anglo-Saxon public. It is an ambitious project that, in addition to being free (and therefore more able to be spread widely), seeks to mark a “narrative quota”. I talked previously about ambition. Of course, entering into the subjectivity of what is authentic or not is questionable: the factors are multiple, the cultural one as mentioned, above all within a diverse society as the UK one.

However, we can leverage a few shreds of technology to begin this journey by engaging the community to help us correct the trajectory along the way. For example, the Newcastle OpenLab we collaborate with has launched a social image tagging initiative to fight back against search-engine bias and stereotypes in ageing. We are well aware of the complexity and the need for significant investment in order for initiatives of this type to reach a critical mass to trigger a ripple effect. And I have personally witnessed it. Launched by Chieko Asakawa and Hironubi Takagi over 10 years ago, I was part of the Social Accessibility Project, an experimental service for a new needs-driven improvement model based on collaborative metadata authoring technologies. In 20 months, about 19,000 pieces of metadata were created for more than 3,000 web pages through collaboration, based on 355 requests submitted from users. The project didn’t scale up from experimental because of the objective difficulty of involving a global participation in order to reach a critical mass to suggest an impact besides the users’ lack of awareness of their own accessibility problems. Nevertheless, it is important to insist on exploiting the technological evolutions underway, probably using the combination of Machine Learning and Neural Networks to discover and identify which are the characteristics of “authenticity” from different cultures associated to images and to progressively apply the outcomes to a developing selection of existing images. An approach that – if conducted according to strict and ethical AI principles and with constant community involvement – could mitigate the obvious censorship risk.

What we’re doing at NICA

At NICA we have embarked upon our own personal journey in the area of authenticity:

1) The zero stock-image communication project

We have set a goal to replace all the stock images in our digital and physical communications by the end of 2021 with images generated by us, with people whose authenticity story we know and can prove. We planned to accomplish this goal within 2020, but COVID-19 prevented us from producing what we had planned. At the moment, we’ve calculated that about 80% of our images fit the criteria of authenticity we set for ourselves. In the meantime, we are selecting, from existing databases, what we believe to be authentic images and putting it to the test of our community.

2) Ageing Intelligence® Ambassadors

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, but also precisely because of them, we launched the Ageing Intelligence® Ambassadors campaign, in order to test the possibility of developing high-quality narrative languages in socially-distanced situations. Stories from real people, with real lives and diverse cultural and professional backgrounds. Profiles of people like each one of us: extraordinary and unique, whatever the stage of life they are in. We are currently planning the second series of Ambassadors that we aim to publish by Autumn 2021.

3) The “every day is a diversity day” light show

Even if no image is involved in this activity, we have tried to explore passive forms of awareness. It is a light show that airs every evening from the windows of our headquarters in Newcastle, aiming to show that every media, even a building, has a role in the process of promoting a new narrative of positive ageing, and that every day is a good day to put it into action.

4) The Carer in Us

The Carer in Us is a pilot series of short films which tell the stories and experiences of formal and informal caregivers in their daily lives. The films are currently being filmed in line with COVID-19 safety guidelines and we aim to launch them in Summer 2021.

What you can do

Do you have any suggestions to help us promote authenticity in ageing and longevity?

Would you like to report initiatives that you think are particularly worthwhile?

Get in touch with us at!