In 1999 at the age of 26, Naomi Harris moved into a sort of retirement community. Harris had come from New York City to South Miami Beach to photograph the lives of the “snowbirds,” seniors who flew south each year to escape the harsh cold of the northeast. In the 1970s and ’80s, thousands of snowbirds spent their winters in the warm Florida sun. But by the time Harris arrived in the late 1990s, times had changed, and the dilapidated Haddon Hall Hotel was the last affordable option for the few remaining snowbirds.
Despite the run-down hotel, its residents continued to shine. Haddon Hall (MASA and Void, 2021) is a joyful portrait of the two years that Harris spent with the snowbirds in Miami, where she lived in residence at the hotel and later at an apartment nearby. The book follows a group of resilient seniors who — despite their crumbling surroundings, physical limitations, and difficult pasts — are independent, sociable, and fun. Twenty years after the photos were made, Haddon Hall offers a refreshing, alternative view of the possibilities and inevitabilities of aging.
Harris’s snowbirds weren’t just carefree vacationers. Most had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and even concentration camps. “This project was initially supposed to be about Holocaust survivors,” Harris wrote in a recent email to Hyperallergic. “But then when I discovered the hotel, I realized not all of these people were necessarily Survivors, yet they were all surviving something.”
While other photographers had portrayed survivors and the elderly as somber figures in black and white, or as superhuman achievers, Harris chose to capture them at play, at rest, and enjoying the final stages of their lives with a child-like glee. Her spontaneous, colorful snaps taken at parties, by the pool, and on the beach show that flirting, friendship, and fashion are still crucially important for the elderly. Harris’s pictures contain a palpable sense of celebration and convey a tender familiarity with her subjects.
“I was accepted by the residents straight away,” Harris said by email. Armed with her 35mm camera and a patient ear, the photographer quickly got to know the dynamic personalities of Haddon Hall. But for Harris, the project was also personal. “I grew up with only my paternal grandmother who wasn’t the warmest of women,” she explained, “so I craved the connection I missed out [on] with my grandparents. And for many of the residents, they didn’t see their own children or grandchildren either, so I was like a surrogate grandchild for them.”
Looking back on the project today, Harris considers Haddon Hall to be a “sort of a love letter to my former, younger self,” she said by email. Long after the people in her photos have passed away, Harris has now experienced some of the challenges that they too must have faced. “Youth is wasted on the young,” Harris continued. “Little do we realize in our 20s that this is as good as it gets, that the future is going to be full of responsibilities, sickness, death, and heartache.”
Ironically, Harris’s photos of seniors at the end of their lives represents, in a way, the beginning of her own. “When you undertake your first project, it’s like falling in love for the first time, all new and exciting with nothing to compare it to and no expectations,” she noted. “That’s the bittersweet part of looking back into the past: you see parts of yourself that you weren’t even aware existed and lament about the fact that you will never have that much freedom again.” If that’s the case, Haddon Hall offers a bit of consolation: despite everything, most of its residents seem to be having a really good time.
Haddon Hall by Naomi Harris is published by MASA and Void and is available online.
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