Susanna Tanner began feeling invisible when she entered her early 50s.

She decided to help other women in her age group and beyond feel visible through sharing their stories and finding new ways to present their images.

The Richmond-based professional photographer began developing a series of portraits called the “50 Over 50 Project,” on display at Reid Health’s MacDowell Gallery through Oct. 31.

Tanner’s first participant was Mary Jo Clark of Richmond, who wanted a photo shoot to commemorate her 80th birthday.

The oldest participant is 93, while a couple of the women celebrated turning 50 by having their photo shoot on their milestone birthday.

Sherrie Harlin, in a photo exhibit by photographer Susanna Tanner

The photos feature women from Wayne and surrounding counties who chose to participate in a lengthy consultation to discuss the upcoming experience, a hair and makeup session with Whitney Mosey, and a photo shoot.

Tanner met the women where they were emotionally, but encouraged them to come at least a little out of their comfort zone and share their personalities. She said women often get very serious when they’re older and feel they need permission to play.

Then, she had a reveal session with each woman two weeks later to view their images and select favorites. That was nearly as nerve-wracking for some as the photo shoot itself.

Tanner said it’s human nature to be self-critical, but she encouraged the women not to focus on the details they don’t like about themselves, because she didn’t notice that about them. She had her own photos taken by another photographer so she could put herself in her subjects’ shoes.

Participants have been excited and surprised by the responses from the photos on social media. They’re learning how much they’re respected and admired for the impact they’ve made on their families and communities — and the impact they will continue to make.

“This project really was just an effort to provide a platform for women to tell their story and to say, ‘I’m still here, I’m still valuable, I’m still beautiful, and I still have so much to contribute,'” Tanner said.

Ginger Gray, in a photo exhibit by photographer Susanna Tanner

Tanner said she received a late-night text from one participant who said she’d been crying all night after seeing such positive responses to her photos on social media.

“‘I feel like I’ve lived through my funeral, hearing all these great things from people,’” Tanner heard her say.

The women have been able to celebrate themselves in a healthy way, Tanner said, and some of their daughters or spouses have seen them in a new light.

“This shows younger people they don’t have to be afraid of getting older,” Tanner said. “It’s evidence you can still lead a full life and you can impact people at any age.”

Tanner said she asked the women to give their younger self some advice, and the women shared so many nuggets of wisdom. She encourages young women to read the final paragraphs on each of the photos displayed to potentially spare themselves some anguish.

Tanner collaborated with Richmond native Kate Jetmore, who creates podcasts independently and for the Western Wayne News, to record interviews with about 20 of the women for the exhibit.

“I realized we all have these stories we don’t share unless we’re asked,” Tanner said.

Their conversations can be accessed by scanning QR codes at the exhibit with a smartphone. Tanner recommends bringing earbuds to hear the 3-minute interviews. She likes the multisensory aspect of the exhibit and encourages allowing for a couple hours to take in everything, or to make a second visit.

Although the participants covered their own expenses for photography, hair and makeup, Tanner gathered sponsorships and in-kind support for the exhibit from supporters including Reid Health, Women’s Fund of Wayne County Foundation, Suzanne Allain Designs, Warm Glow Candle Co., Koechlein Family Fund, Bill and Ruth Carter, and Jetmore.

The images are for sale to benefit women’s health initiatives through Reid Foundation, and the exhibit was timed to coincide with October’s extra attention to women’s health needs such as breast cancer prevention and treatment.

The women have gathered a few times and communicate via social media as a group, making new friends through the experience.

If you go

  • What: The 50 Over 50 Project display featuring photos, written reflections and audio links
  • When: Through Oct. 31
  • Where: MacDowell Gallery on the second floor of Reid Health’s Outpatient Care Center, 1100 Reid Parkway, Richmond
  • Cost: Free
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A version of this article appeared in the October 11 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Millicent Martin Emery is a reporter and editor for the Western Wayne News.