Samuel Clemens, that’s Mark Twain to you and I, once quipped: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” He’s right, of course, and yet the passing of time’s winged chariot does matter. We’re constantly being told that 50 is the new 40, or 60 is the new 50, whatever that means, but behind such glib phrases lies a kernel of truth.
Reaching a landmark birthday can be a prompt for many people to take a step back and assess their life and look at what they’ve achieved, what they haven’t, and perhaps where they want to go and what they would like to do next.
For Shy Burhan, turning 40 made her reflect on her life, and at the start of the year she embarked on her biggest project yet. Forty aims to document people who have turned 40 this year. “I turned 40 in February and as a photographer I wanted to do something based around this and what it means to different people,” she says.
She came across the work of Imogen Cunningham, a famous American photographer who produced a book called After 90. “When she turned 90 she documented over a hundred nonagenarians through these really powerful black and white portraits and I thought it was a great way of celebrating a landmark birthday and I wanted to do something a bit like that,” adds Shy.
She decided to document 40 people who are turning 40 this year and put a call out on social media for people interested in getting involved to contact her. She quickly had more than enough volunteers and started creating her photographic portraits.
“What I found at first was it was mainly middle- class, Caucasian women who were coming forward, but then more men got involved and people from South Asian backgrounds and a West Indian lady who has a disability as well people who are transgender,” says Shy.
“There are people that have had mental health issues and overcome them, there’s people who’ve had kids and people like me that haven’t. Everyone has a different story to tell and is at a different stage in their life, but what we share is that we’re all 40.”
So what made her decide to do this now, rather than when she turned 30?
“I think it has something to do with the idea that when you’re 40 you’ve pretty much lived half your life and you start to question what you’ve done and it gives you a sense of your own mortality,” she says.
“A few people I met through this had lost loved ones and in some cases had lost both their parents, whereas others had grandparents still alive.
“Then there’s those people that have families who sometimes feel like they no longer have a sense of themselves because the role of being a parent often involves a lot of self-sacrifice. For them, being involved in this project gave them a sense of renewal and purpose which I’m pleased about.”
The project is a work in progress as Shy is continuing shooting until the end of the year. The initial 20 portraits, though, form the basis of a new exhibition which has just gone opened in Saltaire and continues as part of the Saltaire Arts Trail.
The second batch of 20 photographs will then go on display from February next year, with the whole collection being exhibited until May.
For Shy, it was a chance to be creative. “It got me back in the studio rather than doing corporate events and it made me push myself because as a photographer you don’t want to repeat old ideas.”
Her path to becoming a photographer is an unconventional one. She grew up in a working- class family in the Manningham area of Bradford before moving away, but didn’t get into photography until she was in her 20s.
She had a lucrative career in finance but gave this up after spending time living in Italy and discovering a passion for photography. “Someone gave me a camera and I started taking different shots and when I came back to the UK I enrolled on a photography course at Bradford College,” she says.
That was back in 2003. “I wasn’t really happy with my old job and I took a 75 per cent pay cut to become a freelance photographer, but I didn’t mind because I was doing something I really wanted to do.”
The photographs for her new exhibition are also inspired by the psychologist Carl Jung, whose works Shy had studied, and his belief that universal images and ideas reside in our collective unconscious – an idea that she has tried to tap into.
“We have these pre-set ideas about certain roles and I’ve tried to incorporate this into the portraits and to reflect what each person was going through at that time as a 40-year-old,” adds Shy.
“I hope people walk away from the exhibition with a sense of themselves. Every portrait is different and I wanted to take these 40 people from being ordinary to extraordinary, because they each have an interesting story that we can relate to in one way or another.”
Shy Burhan’s exhibition Forty runs at the Holding Space, John Street, Saltaire, until May, next year.