“I would say the conception of most of my projects are happy accidents,” says photographer and filmmaker Ryan Harding. “If it’s a street photography project, the theme tends to arise the more I walk around. Once you’ve shot enough photos, you can begin to piece a theme together.” It’s a statement which makes sense upon viewing the London and Shanghai-based creative’s recent book, Old People in Parks, the endearing project of his which first caught our attention.
The project began a few years back when Ryan found himself working unpredictable hours compared to his friends, and with a lot of spare time on his hands. “Wanting to travel off the beaten path, I started going to random tube stations and exploring the parks nearby,” he recalls. “The interesting thing about parks in China is that they are largely full of old people.” In response, Ryan began snapping OAPs in their various activities, whether lounging against the trunk of a tree, bird watching or getting in their daily exercises. The result is as heartwarming and funny as you’d expect.
Despite differing from his subjects in age, Ryan found he felt an affinity towards the elderly park-goers, whether huddled in groups or on their own. “Both are interesting subjects to me, although I guess I’m more drawn to the loners since I am one myself,” he adds. As the numbers of subjects Ryan documented increased, so did his understanding of the phenomenon.
“I realised that the reason they were frequent patrons of parks is that they didn’t have much of a social life outside of them,” he tells us. “Attending parks became a way for them to spend the day meaningfully. Whether they were exercising for physical betterment, or socialising and relaxing to their heart’s content, I found the fact that they were so proactive and engaged in whatever it was that they were doing to be quite admirable.”
Old People in Parks, therefore, became a way for Ryan to “appreciate the older generation in ways I hadn’t previously,” assimilating the project to the experience of watching an Ozu film. It’s easy for younger generations to ignore their elders, he continues, but through documenting them and presenting the images in a book of three chapters – “take care (of your body/health)”, “pass the day/live your life”, and “rest well/relax” – Ryan both acknowledges and celebrates them.
“I mean we’re talking about a generation of people that lived through some of the most deprived conditions in Chinese history and feel left behind with the country’s rapid economic development in the past couple of decades,” he remarks, “put simply, Old People in Parks is a love letter to all the park-dwelling elderly folk I encountered over the past few years. God bless ‘em!”
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