Lives well lived…

Nic Duncan with her photo of gold prospector Johnny Day, which was a finalist in the National Portrait Prize. © Serena Kirby
Nic Duncan with her photo of gold prospector Johnny Day, which was a finalist in the National Portrait Prize. © Serena Kirby

Babies, birthdays, nuptials and special occasions – we photograph them all prolifically. But have you ever noticed something missing? WA photographer Nic Duncan has. Her Lives Well Lived project is working to rectify that by putting older people back in the picture.

“Our elders are too often left out of photos and rarely have their portrait taken,” Nic says. “My Lives Well Lived project started back in 2006 when I photographed a man in his early 70s. He had such an amazing face that truly reflected a life well lived. 

“I then held an exhibition of my work and included that picture, and several others of older people, and it was these shots that generated the biggest response. From there I was asked to be part of a community arts event to capture images exclusively of older people. 

“I call these my ‘oldies photos’ and I say that with all the love and respect these people deserve as it’s always an honour to take their picture.”

It wasn’t long before Nic had a folio of images depicting older people and it was this collection that saw her named as the 2015 WA Portrait Photographer of the Year. Her photo of 99-year-old Nell Tysoe (pictured) went on to be a finalist in the National Portrait Prize and the image was even chosen for the event’s invitations and posters. 

Nell Tysoe (99) became the poster girl for the National Portrait Prize when her image was chosen as an award finalist. © Nic Duncan

Nic says she has photographed literally hundreds of older West Australians since starting the project and constantly encourages families to include their older relatives when sitting for family portraits.

“We really need to be more inclusive. Our elders are the holders of our family history and they have faces that speak volumes about their lives. What people call wrinkles are really storylines of life.”

But it is not just the faces of older people that Nic immortalises in her work; she also records their stories too.

“I love listening to them talk about their lives as I take their photo. As soon as I get back to my studio I write down vital bits of information about their lives and store it with the images. I prefer to take candid photos, in an environment that has meaning to the person, and this helps to tell the person’s story.”

When talking about why we stop having our photo taken as we age, Nic says she thinks it’s more by accident than being an issue of vanity.

“I just think it becomes less important as we age; we just don’t think about it any more and that’s a real shame. But once the person has died, finding photographs of them does become important and that’s often when I get calls from family members asking for copies.”

Nic adds that the digital age has greatly impacted our ability to easily access photos of our older loved ones and mantlepieces displaying pictures in lovely frames have almost become a thing of the past.

“We take so many photos with our phones nowadays that they just get lost amongst the digital clutter. Even if you transfer them onto your computer, you rarely look at them and it can be hard to find them when and if you need to. I always recommend physically printing images of special people and using good quality archival paper.”

So, rather than waiting to be asked to be in your offspring’s family portrait, why not be proactive and organise your own multi-generational photo shoot with a professional photographer. Nic travels all over Western Australia and you never know when she’ll next be in your region or town.

You can see more of Nic’s inspiring work at