Women in the second half of their lives — from the age of 50 into their 100s—often feel invisible. But photographer Ellen Warner is on a mission to prove that their stories deserve a spotlight.
Over the course of 15 years, Warner, 73, photographed and interviewed 40 diverse women over the age of 50 from around the world. The resulting photo book “The Second Half: 40 Women Reveal Life After 50,” was released on Wednesday to rave reviews.
To create the book, Warner traveled the globe and sought out interesting women who were willing to be photographed and discuss their life stories. She landed interviews with some known figures, including 92-year-old Academy Award-winning actress Olivia de Havilland in Paris, and cellist Yo-Yo-Ma’s 85-year-old mother Marina Ma in Long Beach, New York.
Warner also photographed previously unknown women, from a 62-year-old Tuareg nomad in the Sahara, to a 107-year-old retired cook from Antigua, West Indies.
She asked each woman to speak about their lives and values, to detail the lessons they’ve learned and how they viewed their futures. She took black-and-white portraits of the women in their respective regions.
“We don’t always ask about these things. Our culture is so focused on beauty, and in most peoples’ eyes, that tends to be younger women. But what I found is that the second half of life is better than the first,” Warner told Know Your Value. “The women know who they are. They feel much more confident. They can size up situations better. They know their value.”
The project began 15 years ago in Patmos, a Greek Island that Warner was visiting. She spotted a 70-year-old French woman named Jaqueline Délia Brémond, who had a captivating look. Brémond, a former copywriter and founder of a sustainable agriculture foundation, told Warner all about moving to America in the 1960s, living in a geodesic dome in Los Angeles, and how her relationship with her daughter helped her evolve into a less controlling person.
Brémond is featured in “The Second Half,” and she became an inspiration for Warner.
“I learned so much. I began to think, what about women in their 80s, 90s, 100s? I thought: ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Warner had started her career as a photojournalist in New York in 1969. She took a career break for 15 years after having kids, then resumed portrait and travel work in the late 90s. By the time she started “The Second Half,” she was in her 50s and grappling with her own future.
“I didn’t know what this part of my life would be like,” said Warner, who is based in New York. “What would it be like if I started to lose my looks? If I couldn’t travel? But I found out that there are all these women out there, and many of them are just like me.”
Some of the subjects in “The Second Half” endured extraordinary struggles, including 65-year-old Jean Angell who was diagnosed with ALS in her 50s and lost the ability to walk and speak. She told Warner that she while she has suffered a lot of loss, she is sustained through the love of her family.
In Saudi Arabia, 60-year-old Fathia Al Sulimani recalled walking directly up to King Faisal to ask permission to study science, since her school was restrictive regarding girls’ education. He said yes, and Sulimani would go on to become a doctor of nephrology.
All of the women offered hope, optimism and insight, said Warner.
“I learned from every single one of them,” she said. “I learned that sure, we all want to still look young and vibrant, but the most important thing is that you’re vibrant inside of you. And that’s worth so much more.”
Warner said that women of all ages can appreciate the stories in “The Second Half.”
“I knew that the book was interesting, but I was surprised by the amount of young people in their 30s and 40s who were excited about it. They want to know what it’s like, too,” Warner said.
Warner encouraged younger women to actively seek out stories and advice from women over 50.
“For younger women, it’s a privilege to get to know older women. You get a lot of wisdom and a lot of encouragement,” said Warner. “When you’re in your 20s and 30s, life is so fraught in so many ways. You’re discovering your career, finding your partner in life, having children—there are so many pressures. Talking to someone older can give you perspective on those things, and on what is really important.”