Throughout her career as a photojournalist, Ellen Warner has traveled the world to capture subjects from tribal groups in North Vietnam to cashmere goats in Mongolia. In 2006, when she was in her fifties, she was photographing a “beautiful French woman” who had just turned 70. Although she usually does makes conversation with her portrait subjects, this time she was asking the woman questions centered around what it felt like to be that age. It was from that heart-to-heart that she came up with idea for her book, “The Second Half: Forty Women Reveal Life After Fifty,” which was published on March 8.
Its pages are filled with interviews of women ranging in age from 53 to 107 with professions that span from farmer to ballerina. Warner also sat down with the first woman in North America licensed to shoe thoroughbred horses and the first French woman TV anchor. As for the questions, she used the same set for everyone, which included asking them about their happiest and saddest times, as well as their plans for the future and how they would like to be remembered.
Although she did speak to some women from the United States, many came from places all over the globe, from Antigua and Saudi Arabia to Paris and Rome. When asked what they all had in common, she said, “They all felt the second half was better. And that was a surprise; I didn’t necessarily expect that.”
And as far as what she took away from the experience, which became a 15-year labor of love, Warner, who is now 74, said, “The project certainly gave me hope for the future and hopefully the book will give younger women the same feeling.”
So all the women said the second half was better?
Literally all these women said that it was better than the first half. I think the reasons for that are that you know who you are, you know what you’re interested in ... so you’re not a jack of all trades, you’re more a master of one, or at least doing the things that are important to you. And also, I think that in the second half, you have more time to be spiritual in whatever way you define that. Because the first half, you find your partner, if you’re going to have one, you have children, if you’re going to have them, you’re trying to figure out your career and advance in it. You’re busy with all these things, whereas in the second half, you’ve made those choices, so you could focus on what you really care about. And as long as you have taken care of yourself physically, which really is important, then you could really enjoy your second half.
What were some good pieces of advice that the women offered?
Tamasin Day-Lewis, who is Daniel Day-Lewis’ sister, she’s a documentary filmmaker. She’s a wonderful cook and she’s written books with catchy titles like “Tarts With Tops On.” She said, “You know, you pare things down. It’s like with cooking. When you were younger, you cooked these incredible, elaborate meals. But when you get older, you use fewer ingredients, but they’re all better ones.” [Actress] Leslie Caron said, “No matter what you do, do it to the best of your ability. Whether you’re doing a voiceover or a major part.” So now I find myself saying to my children, “No matter what you do, whether you’re washing the dishes ... do it properly. Don’t try and cut corners.”
What was the most heartbreaking interview?
In a way, the most heartbreaking one was Lali Al Balushi from Oman. She’s illiterate; she didn’t go to school because her mother died very young and her stepmother said, “You don’t need to go to school. You can clean the house and make yourself useful.” And then she was married off very early and then her husband left her for another woman and moved to Pakistan with Lali’s three children, the youngest being two months old.
As for professions, some people had such interesting ones.
Ada Gates, the first woman farrier, she had a really tough time. First of all, she was interested in so many things when she was in New York. And then she ended up going with a friend out West and she stayed. And she couldn’t find anyone to shoe her horse, so she went to horse shoeing school and there were tons of men there. And a man did not want her in the class and he threw a spike at her. And then she took the exam to become a farrier and failed the first time. Every man in the union came to watch her take the test.
The oldest woman you interviewed was 107-year-old Irene Carlos, a retired cook from Antigua. She never got married or had children. What did you find was her key to longevity?
Maybe that. First of all, life was terribly poor in Antigua when she was growing up. You didn’t have all these modified foods and stuff; everything was fresh. And you walked; you got exercise. I don’t quite know why she lived so long, but she lived to be 110 or 111. I visited her when I went back there again, after I’d done the interview. She was very independent. She clearly loved life ... In a way, she didn’t have too many disappointments in life because the other woman that I did from Antigua, her husband would go off on flings with other women. In a way, Irene was just doing her own thing and didn’t count on any man. She also had great faith. She prayed a lot and thanked God. And I think oftentimes, if someone is calm in that way, whether it’s meditation or religious faith, that probably helps you.
Besides saying that the second half was better, what did the women seem to have in common?
I think another thing that a lot of them had in common was that you have to have something for yourself. Because in the culture that some of those women grew up in, that was not necessarily something that was advised. They all had discovered that there was something that was theirs and that was a big help.
“The Second Half: Forty Women Reveal Life After Fifty” is available to buy here.