Alaska Centenarians In National Photo Project

Photographer Danny Goldfield shows centenarian Henry Neligan some apps on his smartphone while talking at the Ketchikan Indian Community cafeteria.
Photographer Danny Goldfield shows centenarian Henry Neligan some apps on his smartphone while talking at the Ketchikan Indian Community cafeteria.

A New York photographer wants to create portraits of a 100-year-old man and a 100-year-old woman from each of the 50 states. He’s calling the project “To Live 10,000 years,” and he recently checked a couple hundred of those years off his list during a trip to Ketchikan.

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Danny Goldfield thought that Alaska would be the most difficult state to find centenarians, especially a man. But, it turned out to be pretty easy. Goldfield knew someone from Alaska, and one connection is all you really need in a state where everyone is closely connected.

So, he sent an email, his friend made a call, and there you have it.

“It was kind of amazing that the first day of the project, that I had a lead, at least, for what was going to be the hardest subject to find: A man in Alaska who is over 100,” he said.

Henry Neligan. Photo by Danny Goldfield
Henry Neligan. Photo by Danny Goldfield

That 100-year-old man is Henry Neligan, an Alaska Native who also is a veteran of the World War II-era Alaska Territorial Guard.

Neligan eats lunch almost every day at the Ketchikan Indian Community cafeteria. Goldfield joined him there for soup, salad and sandwiches, as well as conversation and, of course, photographs.

Conversation is part of the process. Goldfield said he’s naturally curious about people, and enjoys talking with each of his subjects.

“I don’t really have much of an agenda or questions that I need answered,” he said. “I’m just happy to be with them and wait and hear what they have to offer, what they have to stay and let their stream of consciousness inform the conversation. It’s the same way with the photography. I don’t have any expectations of what kind of images I’m going to get. I just wait and let things happen and try to make it as natural as possible. In a perfect situation, I’m almost invisible.”

Goldfield said he started this project in part because his own parents are getting older. That made him think about aging in the United States, so he decided to focus his lens on the growing community of older Americans.

It’s early days still for Goldfield’s project, which he expects will take about two years to complete. Before coming to Ketchikan, he photographed centenarians in Maryland, Connecticut and New Hampshire, and after Alaska, Goldfield planned some more West Coast stops.

This has been a learning experience for Goldfield. He said that before starting this project, he had a pretty bleak view of what it was like to be an older American. Now, though, he has a different picture of that world.

“There’s a lot of people out there looking out for the elders in our communities and it’s really been actually more encouraging than discouraging, which is nice, right?” he said.

Goldfield acknowledged that his project probably leads him to seniors who are well cared for.

Margaret McCombs. Photo by Danny Goldfield.
Margaret McCombs. Photo by Danny Goldfield.

Another lesson learned is that the senior community is a woman’s world.

“You know, 80 percent of centenarians are women, most older adults are women,” he said. “It’ll be a daughter, inevitably, that’s caring for an elder in a family. A lot of people working in different organizations are women. So, sometimes you hear that ‘the politics of gender. It’s a man’s world.’ Well, I have found a world that is definitely a woman’s world and it’s the world of older adults.”

Speaking of women, Goldfield was able to find an Alaska woman in Ketchikan to photograph, as well: 107-year-old Margaret McCombs, who lives at the Ketchikan Pioneers Home.

Goldfield’s photographs of 100-year-old men and women can be seen online at tolive10000years.com. Goldfield also shares his images through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.