Dame Harriet Walter: Facing It

Dame Harriet Walter talks to Annette Shaw about her lifelong passion for photography and how she has used it to positively celebrate the beauty of the older woman.

Facing It


Dame Harriet Walter talks to Annette Shaw about her lifelong passion for photography and how she has used it to positively celebrate the beauty of the older woman

Dame Harriet Walter has an impeccable thespian pedigree. She is an associate artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and has played many leading roles including Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. Her film credits include Atonement, The Young Victoria and Sense and Sensibility and current projects include the new ITV series of Midsomer Murders and a feature film, The Wedding Video from the writer and director of Calendar Girls.

However Harriet’s latest venture is not on the stage or in front of a camera but behind the lens. Facing It is a fascinating collection of photographs of women aged from 50 to 100 taken by various photographers including Harriet herself. For years Harriet, who lives in semi-rural west Dorset, has had a love of all things photographic. “I rush to photographer’s galleries and exhibitions whenever I go to a foreign town or city, you can learn such a lot about a country from portraits of its people and their way of life.”  In her thirties she even toyed with the idea of becoming a professional photographer. “But I was too impatient and too self-conscious to intrude in people’s lives, I took several pictures of the backs of people’s heads or heads just disappearing out of a frame! It wasn’t until this project came along that I decided to rekindle my interest in photography.”

Some images for Facing It were borrowed, other bought from photographic agencies or commissioned by Harriet, “And some were taken by me – I just wanted to capture a face.” There are portraits of famous women such as Joan Bakewell, Judi Dench and Sheila Hancock, along with people Harriet happened to meet on the tube and in the supermarket. “I had to pluck up the courage to ask people if they would be willing to be photographed.  I’m sure they thought I was a crank! But many were very pleased to be noticed –so many older women feel invisible.”  What all these women have in common are faces that reflect the reality of getting older, complete with lines and wrinkles, auras of confidence, of experience, humanity and depth that only the passing years can bring. 

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Initially there were several exhibitions in Dorset featuring these extraordinary portraits culminating in an exhibition of all 75 images in the Olivier Foyer at the National Theatre. However when Harriet came to bringing them together in a book she hit a problem. “Most publishers are not keen on photographic books unless the subject or the photographer is well-known or celebrated. It’s a question of cost and what you can earn back from your outlay.”  Harriet was asked to consider altering the balance of photographs to words but she wanted to stay true to her vision. Instead, spurred on by feed back from the exhibition, she decided to self-publish. “I had one necessary ingredient to achieve this – supportive friends. Many of the photographers co-operated for free and Joan Scanlon edited the book and helped me produce it along with her step-daughter Lauren Franks who assisted with supervising the design.”

The result is a fascinating collection of photographs interspersed with Harriet’s and other’s thoughts on ageing. “The idea of collecting positive images of older beauty came to me when I was beginning to face the fact that I was no longer young. It’s time to reclaim the O word,” says Harriet. “If living longer and being no longer young or even middle-aged means that I am old, then yes, I am old. Get used to the idea that “old” can be a simple fact and not an insult or a message of doom. My mind is buzzy and my life is good. I am lucky and happy to be alive.  People say I don’t look my age. But look again. This is what “my age” looks like,” declares Harriet, who is a very youthful looking 61.

In Facing It Harriet sets out to challenge our view of the older woman and to create a talking point. “Our grandparents lived with rigid time frames, particularly when it came to marriage and having children,” she says. “Removing those references means everything’s up for grabs, we have to re-think where the boundaries are and whether they need exist at all.” On the plus side she adds that women have the opportunity to forge careers and lives that would have been inaccessible to their forbears. The negative aspect is that as a society we are in unchartered waters and need a course correction in our general attitude to oldies. Reports indicate that by the year 2035, 23% of the population will be above 65 and the average age will be 42.2 years.  In 2015 5.4 million people will be aged 75 and over.   

As an actor Harriet is acutely aware that as the years roll by it can become increasingly difficult to find suitable roles. “In my industry age is so visible. Though my age works against me at least I am still working.  So many of my very talented peer group has been sidelined,” she sighs. Harriet suggests that this is more evident in the American and British film and TV industries, adding that as a rule our European neighbours have traditionally offered more complex roles for older female characters. “There are so many ways we can look beautiful and attractive without looking young. Trying to freeze our looks in the past is deadening.  Continuing life is what is inspirational,” she says. “We should re-evaluate ourselves and stop obsessing about the loss of our youthful looks.  I’m not saying let it all go either. I’m talking about self-respect and self-worth which we must find for ourselves, not at the end of a surgeon’s scalpel.”

Coming to terms with the inevitable can be invigorating too as Harriet explains. “We all have transitional times; I remember when my mother was dying, I was 52, and it was almost like emerging from a chrysalis, feeling I’d never be the same again. I decided to try and befriend the inevitable and, as I do, I’m finding an increased sense of freedom, completeness and strength.”

There is no doubt that inner confidence is hugely attractive and so is being authentic or ‘bien dans sa peau’ (comfortable in your own skin) as the French would say.  “My message to younger women is not to get into a state about ageing,” says Harriet. “A life of value has many parts. Stay positive and interested, keep enthusiastic and passionate, cherish your friendships and remember it doesn’t all have to be achieved before you’re 30 or even 40.”

Facing It is available from bookshops and Amazon at �21.99

For more details visit www.facingitpublications.tumblr.com