Maine people are the oldest folks in the country. There’s more oldsters here, relatively speaking, than any other state in the union. That fact is usually seen as an economic and health care conundrum to be solved. But for one Maine man, it’s a photographic opportunity and something to celebrate.
About a year ago, Orono photographer Jason Paige Smith started his “The Oldest State” project. Since then, he has made more than a dozen monumental portraits of seniors around the state. Each intricately crafted photograph is coupled with a paragraph or two about the subject. Most of his subjects are still active. All look happy with who — and where — they are.
All the photos can be seen on Smith’s website, and a few are hanging at the Gracie Theatre at Husson University in Bangor.
Smith hasn’t had any trouble finding subjects for his pictures. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and its 2017 American Community Survey, the median Maine age is 44.6. The country’s national median age is 38. That standing is not new; Maine has been named the oldest state many years in a row.
Smith, 41, grew up in Florida. He’s a journalist by schooling and spent time living Colorado. Smith and his family moved to Orono a decade ago. His photo clients include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Walmart, Down East magazine, WEX Inc., and Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.
Q: Why photograph old people?
A: When I moved up here and I didn’t think much about the median age being older than the rest of the country. But the longer you live here, the more you hear people talk about it. Every time I’d go out on an assignment — you know, traveling around the state — I’d get to [meet and] appreciate the older people who are here. I think they really say a lot about the state, they kind of make up what the state is, as a whole.
Q: Are they more interesting than younger people?
A: I wouldn’t say that, but they certainly have a much longer life’s story to tell. They’ve got some decades of experience under their belts. I’m sure there are a lot of really interesting younger people here as well, and I’ve met several of them. But there’s something about the fact that these people are still doing these things. Some of the things they’re doing, most people half their age don’t do them. I guess it motivates me to get out there and do more.
Q: How do you find these folks? How do you choose them?
A: That’s been interesting. When I started the project, I had a short list of people from different walks of life. I wanted to include as much diversity as I could and approach it from different angles. The first person I photographed was a lobsterman. When I posted it on Facebook, a lot of people reacted to it and I started getting all these messages about other people [who would be good subjects]. So it turned into this cool, kind of organic process, where I would post a picture and then I’d get all these interesting referrals — and it’s people I never would have thought of, real surprises.
Q: Is it hard to convince people to get in front of your camera?
A: There’s been a few people who weren’t interested, but, for the most part, people have a lot of fun with it. And it’s nice to work with them. They usually have a little more time on their hands to do something like this. It’s an interesting process to show up with all my gear and talk through things. I just photographed a guy in Newcastle and I set up in his living room. It’s a great opportunity to talk to them while I’m setting everything up. It’s fun to see them go back and talk about [old times]. I think it does bring back a lot of memories.
Q: I love the captions on these photos. I appreciate a photographer who isn’t afraid to write a little. I think photos say a lot, all at once, but they often don’t say anything definitive, or specific. You need words for the fine details.
A: Yeah, that’s the journalist in me coming out. I feel like it would be doing my subjects a disservice not to include [the captions]. I think there’s more going on than you can put in the pictures.
Q: Where are you going with this project?
A: That’s the million-dollar question. Everyone wants it to be a book, which I think would be fantastic. But, of course, I’d have to figure out a way to fund a thing like that. I don’t know how, exactly, it will play out. It’s been pretty interesting on its own, online, but I’d love to see a printed edition of it somehow, somewhere — and a lot of the people I’ve photographed don’t use the internet. So, I always send them a print just to show them how it all turned out.
Q: For now, you’re going to just keep on shooting?
A: There’s enough stories to tell out there that I could do one of these a week, forever.