Fine Art Photography Daily

Photolucida: Gemma-Rose Turnbull: Paper Thin

Today’s post is part of several weeks dedicated to work seen at Photolucida

Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and the timing is perfect to bring light to a subject that rarely gets attention in the photography world, much less anywhere else. Australian photographer, Gemma-Rose Turnbull, brought several projects to Photolucida, including one on this subject. Paper Thin is a terrific collaborative project, both documentary and participatory, giving us enough of the story to fill in the blanks. Another project,  Red Light Dark Room; Sex, lives and stereotypes 2011 (created with a group of street based sex workers) also was achieved with the same methodology.

Her projects and photographs have been exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum, the Portland Art Museum, the United Nations Vistors Centre in New York, the Queensland Centre of Photography, the HeadOn, Ballarat and FotoFreo Photo Festivals in Australia, and numerous small artist-run spaces. She has been the recipient of grants from The Australia Council for the Arts, Arts Queensland and The Helen Macpherson Smith Trust. Gemma-Rose continues to explore photo-based social practice in a range of collaborative projects with her family; I wish I could spend more time with my family 2013 – ongoing.


When I tell people what I am photographing they look at me askance. “Elder abuse? What’s that?” The very few who don’t question the term whisper their own tremulous tale. From this I glean that unless someone you know, be it through family or work, has had his or her vulnerability taken advantage of, then you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. 

So I find a generic explanation, one I rattle off to everyone, quickly offloading it, without breath or pause: “Elder abuse is any act within a relationship of trust which results in harm to an older person. The most common forms of elder abuse include physical abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse and neglect.” It does the job but it’s not the whole story. 

That’s what I find in the lounge rooms and kitchens I meet people in. Rooms that are, without exception, covered in the collections of long lives; photos, trinkets, albums, newspaper clippings, the bits-and-bobs that add up to the sum of their years. I sit, and I drink tea (endless cups of it) and we talk. Finally I find out what ‘elder abuse’ really means.

Most of the stories leave me gawping in shock, unable to correlate my environment with the words spilling from the person sat in front of me. And I’m not someone who hasn’t come across the horrors that people inflict on each other before. I’ve walked sad paths with very vulnerable people, but this…

But these folk are, in some sense, the lucky ones. They’re some of the ones who have had the resources, education, support or will to find help. And they find it in the Seniors Legal and Support Service (SLASS) at the Caxton Legal Centre. 

But the saddest part is that I feel like that for every person who finds that gift of help from SLASS there must be a half dozen more who are being let down by a community that doesn’t respect its aged. And so, almost more importantly than giving these people a voice to tell their stories, is the hope that their stories will make people remember that age and vulnerability does not diminish a person’s worth. 

Caxton Legal Centre is an independent, non-profit community organisation providing free legal advice, social work services, information and referrals for the most disadvantaged members of society. Established in 1976, Caxton is Queensland’s longest running free legal advice service. The Seniors Legal and Support Service, or SLASS, provides free legal and social work support for seniors experiencing elder abuse, mistreatment or financial exploitation. SLASS is part of Caxton Legal Centre Inc.


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