“I’m full of joy, redeemed, set free” is the slogan being used by the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. It is taken from the opening lines of a psalm-poem by the Rhineland cabaret artist and writer Hanns Dieter Hüsch (1925-2005).

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 For the members of the seniors group, the project is about seeing themselves from a different perspective, “beyond standard ideals of beauty like perfection and youth”

Photo Project

Wonderfully made

In the beginning was the Word. The biblical Word. In this case, Psalm 139: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” And such was the title of a parish project in Wuppertal: “Wonderfully made. Seniors of Uellendahl photographed by Andrea Rompa.” Photographed in the nude.

Lively interest in the project, a crowded vernissage Lively interest in the project, a crowded vernissage

They are members of the seniors group of the local Evangelical church congregation in Uellendahl-Ostersbaum. For them, the project is about seeing themselves from a different perspective, “beyond standard ideals of beauty like perfection and youth,” parish minister Dr Holger Pyka explained in late summer in an article in the newspaper Westdeutsche Zeitung titled “Old bodies and their beautiful traces of life”. The parish’s website expresses the thought that it is actually these traces of a lived life that make a body truly beautiful. The oldest of the seniors will turn 100 in the coming days.

On Facebook, the theologian outlines how the act of photographing became an expression of the biblical promise for those taking part. Now, a selection of photos in an exhibition in the parish center reflects the seniors’ experiences during the project. Black and white pictures, around which the huge crowd of guests at the vernissage is swarming.

Parish minister Dr Holger Pyka Parish minister Dr Holger Pyka

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and saw everything that he had made, and it was good. “It was very good,” Pastor Pyka says as he recalls the Creation story at the vernissage. Although the serpent very quickly “hissed the first doubts into the world” and Adam and Eve cowardly covered up following their “apple diet”, the fact remains today even: God sees that everything is very good. “And we stand in front of the mirror and are not impressed.”

Or we are even harsher in our judgment, as Pyka recounts on Facebook after the photo shoot, though naturally not naming anyone by name. One senior told of her mother’s verdict on her childhood appearance – that she was ugly. That stuck with her, nearly her whole life. Now, fresh on the heels of the photo shoot, she says defiantly, “Today we’ve shown that that was not true. We’ve not shown her that. But we’ve shown me.”

Too old, too fat, too skinny, too small, too masculine, too feminine? At the vernissage Holger Pyka puts it this way: “We are lifting our voices and contradicting the serpent.” In this case, with photos rather than words.

WDR television interview with Annette Horn WDR television interview with Annette Horn

But how did such a project come about? At the beginning of the year, the pastor brought up his idea – “somewhat risqué” as he himself says –  and found a sympathetic ear in the seniors group leader Annette Horn. “And I know just the photographer for the job,” she said, having just been photographed by Andrea Rompa. Consequently, she also knew that in the beginning it would cost the seniors quite an effort to take part and that trust would need to be won first in order to follow through with the project. Yet, she also knew that “people would have a totally different perception of themselves” afterwards.

Now it is very important for Horn that the seniors group is not viewed as a time to chat over coffee and her role in it as being for her own personal amusement. “Academy for seniors”, some participants call the group, and this is more accurate. “I want to impart something that people can take with them.”

Around 170 people came to the vernissage Around 170 people came to the vernissage

But the idea of the project met with “much skepticism” at first. This only eased as a result of many conversations, in particular as they worked together on a collage of Marilyn Monroe. In its place grew “a real sense of adventure”. To do something “wicked” once in one’s life, something cheeky.

This not only came from the in-depth discussions, in particular about ideals of beauty. The group also watched the movie comedy “Calendar Girls”, which tells the exhilarating story of a group of women who produce a nude calendar. And which, incidentally, was also the source of a very practical tip, as Holger Pyka revealed during a broadcast of the local affairs program “Lokalzeit Bergisches Land” on regional television channel WDR-Fernsehen: Take off bras two hours before the photo shoot to avoid strap marks.

Heartfelt thanks to photographer Andrea Rompa Heartfelt thanks to photographer Andrea Rompa

In July, then, the photo shoot took place over two weekends. Some of the seniors were photographed in a temporary studio in the parish center. Others went to Andrea Rompa’s studio. Beate Deutsch (63) was one of the latter. Unlike others in the group, she passed on wearing any accessories – no hat, no scarf. “I deliberately did not cloth myself in any way.”  In the photo she is “just as God created me”, though she did keep on her “God Whisper” necklace. That she would lie down in an embryo-like position is an idea that came spontaneously in the studio; “It was the feeling of well-being and security,” she explains while looking at her photographic likeness.

Trust has been won. A sense of community as well. “Our relationships have become much closer. That has been very moving for me,” says seniors group leader Annette Horn. As she addresses the vernissage, she articulates it in this way: “The ‘we’ in our group has become much more important.”

And yet – why would the Church do something like this? “Because it is what we should be doing as Church,” Pastor Pyka tells the guests at the vernissage. Or, to share Annette Horn’s insight: “We are the likeness of God. In every phase of life – even with creases and wrinkles.”

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ekir.de / text and photography: Anna Neumann / 29.10.2018

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