Age is Just a Number
An interview with Thelma Stewart
The concept behind this website is to bring people that have a passion for photography together, not to talk about gear (although it may happen, on occasion) but to find out what connects us. Some of the articles are about photographers that are incredibly creative, others about their experience as pros; it’s also about photographers generously sharing their knowledge and inspiring us. Thelma, although too humble to consider herself a creative, certainly is an inspiration. I’ve known her now for close to 8 years, and knowing her age and health issues, I look up to her as she reminds me that I’m often lazy and should just get off my butt and take some photos! We crab about everything: the bad weather, too tired, nothing to take pictures of etc., etc., . Read Thelma’s story. She started photography late in life and has definitely proven that age is just a number. She’s never let it stop her and reminds us that every moment is precious; savor them, revel in them, and enjoy them; no matter what!
Tell me, Thelma, where were you born and where do you live now?
I was born in Plymouth, Devon, UK of English parents but when I was 8 years old, in 1937, the family moved to Hong Kong because of my father’s work. He specialized in the electrical wiring of submarines which weren’t widely used in those days. The British Government wanted the Naval Port of Hong Kong to build up their submarine fleet for the Pacific.
I went to school there but in 1940, women and children were evacuated to Australia because of the threat of war with Japan and that was about 18 months before Pearl Harbour; Malaya and Hong Kong were attacked at the same time. However, even after all that time, no one was prepared for the attack. A large number of Canadian soldiers were sent to HK to help to defend it, resulting in a terrible death toll. There were also British soldiers who were stationed there and all the civilian men (like my father) had to become volunteers and they received some training. HK was attacked on the 8th Dec, 1941 and fell on Xmas Day that year. There had been no hope at all of defending the colony. Resistance was strong but to no avail. The soldiers and civilians who lived through the fighting, became Prisoners of War but many didn’t survive until the end of WW2.
After the war, we moved back to HK , where I married and had a son and a daughter. Later, my parents retired to England and in 1968, my husband, teenage children and I moved to Perth, Western Australia.
I know it’s a delicate question, but so important to this interview – can you tell us how old you are?
I am now 84.
I know you once told me that you regret not having started photography earlier? So when did you actually start and how did it come about?
I started photography when I was 74 when my son bought me a very small point & shoot camera. I had never been interested in it earlier but soon became hooked. It opened up a whole new world which is why I’m sorry that I didn’t start much earlier.
Why photography and not some other art form?
I always enjoyed art but wasn’t much good at it. I loved pencil and charcoal sketching but even my art teacher suggested that I didn’t continue with paint. She, very kindly, said that I needed the resistance of the other.
Do you bring your camera everywhere with you?
I take a camera everywhere and even have one that will fit in my fairly large handbag just in case I see something that just HAS to be photographed.
Do you shoot alone, or with other people?
I usually shoot alone but my long-suffering family are used to me suddenly stopping to take a photo.
Considering your age, do you feel constrained by any mobility or health issues?
Yes, now I do feel restrained because of my age. I have heart trouble that is held at bay fairly well with my lovely pacemaker. The main problem is that I also have Macular Degeneration so I’m not allowed to drive, which I hate, having always been so very independent.
Never mind, I click when I can or use the shoe-box (bless it). editor’s note: Shoe-box is a term used for images that have been photographed in the past and kept to show later, as needed, such as for photography contests.
My family and friends are all very helpful and patient with me. I’ve never been one to sit around moping so I’m always busy indoors and outdoors. I have a magnifying glass in every room including a big one with its own light that stands on the floor next to my computer and I use it to edit photos.
I believe you also told me you used to be a teacher and that you are now retired. I know many people that say when they will retire they will have time to do all sorts of things but most of them never really do. What makes you different? Have you always been a doer?
I started off as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language ) teacher in HK as it is not the first language there. When I came to Perth, I became an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and lecturer because English is the first language here. ESL was a new thing in 1968 so I arrived at the right time. I lectured at the University and in the Teachers’ Training College for those who wanted to specialize in ESL. I have never taught anyone under 18.
When I retired, I took up making costume jewellery which I did until my fingers got a bit stiff.
Then I switched to making greeting cards to raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind and have raised $12,509 so far. I buy all the equipment needed and that is my donation. I don’t count the time involved as I love it and can easily look at the dust, then go and make another card because the dust waits quite patiently.
You ask if I’ve always been a ‘doer’. Most certainly YES. While I was still in HK, I had quite a few books published to suit the Chinese students as previously we had to use books written for English-speaking students. Of course, they are now all out of date, but they sold well as the Chinese-speaking teachers hated the very English books which they sometimes didn’t understand themselves. Now there are excellent books for the purpose and Chinese teachers know much more about English than they used to, partly because of TV. Also many Chinese teachers now go abroad to study which seldom happened in the 60s and early 70s.
How has photography changed your life? Has it been a sort of metamorphosis?
Photography helps to keep me going although when I started, I put much more pressure on myself. With age, I just love the whole process, albeit much slower for me, but if I enjoy it, that’s the main thing I feel. I’m only competitive with myself now.
We hear a lot about young photographers being innovative and brilliant, yet of older
photographers we hear they have life experience and are wise? What do you think about that statement?
You ask what I think of young photographers. Well, what I’ve seen, I think they are really good if they have mastered the basic skills. Of course, life experience helps a lot but nowadays, there are so many types of cameras available and new techniques. Also with movies and TV, the young have a better understanding of different cultures and they travel more. Maybe, I’m not a good judge seeing that I started so late in life. I’m just very glad that I did.
Does photography keep you young?
Keep me younger? That’s a difficult question but I have to say ‘yes’ as I still have the passion and a wonderful interest. I think some of the other answers might suit this one. but, let’s say, I think young. Photography helped to make me accept my limitations but might have had a different effect if I’d started younger when I was really busy with lots of things.
Do you believe being older gives you any advantage as a photographer?
This is a difficult question as I can’t compare the difference between being young and old ‘cos I started quite late. I did a lot of traveling and I’m really sorry that I wasn’t interested in photography much earlier. I was still traveling when I first became interested for which I’m eternally grateful.
What type of photography do you prefer doing and why?
I love macro, perspective, texture or just closeups mainly but don’t like doing portraits or landscapes. When everyone else is photographing scenery, I have my nose up against a tree taking the bark.
Have you always considered yourself to be a creative personality and has your creativity changed as you have gotten older?
I don’t consider that I always felt particularly creative. It is something that developed as I got older. As I said somewhere else, I liked sketching and I did lots of fair-isle knitting with my own designs but stiffer fingers just happen.
Do you feel young photographers have an advantage over you or is it the other way around, that life-experience gives you the advantage?
Life experience gives you wider vision but not always skill. For young folk, the desire to learn and to persevere is important. Experience develops gradually.
I’ve always found that you do not take yourself too seriously and I’ve seen photographs where you even poke fun at yourself. Have you always been this way? Does age make a person less full of themselves?
I never took myself too seriously as that bores everyone and is just too much effort. My grand-children and great-grand-children think I’m nuts but I tell them that when I get old, I’ll behave. I used to tell the trainee teachers at college that they had to make the class relax. All good teachers are really actors under the skin and have to perform to get a point across. That can’t be done from a sheet of notes.
When you were young, did you always dream about being an artist?
No. When I was young it never occurred to me to be an artist. I just always wanted to be a teacher and my dolls were the best educated toys on the block.
What would you say to someone who thinks they are too old to start?
You are NEVER too old to start something new even though there will be limitations as you age. You just have to accept them and do as much as you can. Accepting is the biggest hurdle. I can sit at the computer or make cards and feel I could run a marathon but when I stand up, it’s a different story. But, that OK, I just walk slowly.
What would you say to all those whipper snipper youngin’s out there?
To the young, I would say, just keep plugging away with photography (or whatever). Learning is a slow process with patience needed.
You and I share this wonderful passion of photography, as do the readers of this website. Passion for me has not diminished as I have gotten older; in fact, I would say it has gotten stronger. Is this the case for you also? Tell me about it.
Passion is essential in whatever you do if you want to do well. If you don’t have that passion, just do something else. I feel life is like climbing a hill. You start at the bottom and as you climb up, you gain experience and knowledge no matter how difficult it is. Then you get to the top and the world is spread out before you. The fortunate stay in that position a long time. The downward journey is much easier for some than others but you have to look out for the stones, pits and other obstacles.
PS: another thought that I left out. I never had any formal training in photography apart of a couple of evening classes. I learned nearly everything from Worth1000, by making dreadful clangers, noting comments and seeing what others do. Kim was my mentor and I can never thank her enough for her talent and tolerance.
Since I know Kim McAvoy and know that she has actually met Thelma, I asked her to write a little something. Here is what she had to say:
I first met Thelma when I had a part-time job coaching people who wanted to learn basic computer skills. Thelma showed herself to be an enthusiastic and quick study, taking notes and showing improvements at each lesson. She questioned me on my hobbies and found out about my photography interest, and participation at Worth1000. She showed an interest in that too, and soon I was teaching her how to use her camera in tandem with her computer. She enrolled in a photography course, and within a short while was capably and ably competing at Worth.
Her boundless energy and enthusiasm has always been an inspiration to me, and her unfailing stubbornness to give up or give in, no matter what she is faced with, is humbling. She has faced health issues with her heart, and eyes, and despite that, still continues to enjoy her photography and using her computer to stay in touch with the world on the internet.
In the real world, she has contributed much of her time and energy to worthy causes, volunteering her assistance at a charity shop, as well as creating greeting cards and selling them on behalf of the Guide Dog Society. Over her years of doing that, she has single-handedly raised a significant sum of money to assist with the training of these wonderful assistance dogs and I know her efforts are well appreciated.
Thelma continues to awe me with her tenacity, wit and charm, and her years as an English teacher, and also a teacher of English teachers, makes her an interesting and engaging conversationalist.
I wish Thelma much luck and joy in continuing to enjoy her photography and hope she never stops enthusiastically embracing the technology that has enabled her to learn this hobby and gain such joy from it.
Thelma Stewart lives in Perth, Australia and started photography a mere 8 years ago. Formerly an English Professor, she’s written books for teaching English, has traveled extensively and she now spends her time with her passions, photography and volunteering for Guide Dogs for the Blind. A mom to 2 children, Thelma also has 5 grand-children and 4 great-grandchildren! She’s warm, tenacious, vivacious, young at heart and certainly an inspiration, not only to me but to many.
Age is Just a Number – an interview with Thelma Stewart by Maggie Terlecki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.