Every second newborn that charges into the world today will, statistically speaking, live past the age of 100. That’s remarkable, especially considering that just a few decades ago, becoming a centenarian was extremely rare. Even more so for the subjects of Happy At 100, a photo essay by the German photographer Karsten Thormaehlen, who were all born around the turn of the last century.
Thormaehlen started taking pictures of centenarians as a freelancer in 2006 as a personal project—a salve to the more workaday agency gigs he was used to as a commercial photographer. The project lasted until 2011, after he’d photographed more than 40 Germans who had lived through more than most of us can imagine. The series, Jahrhundert Mensch (Century People) and its sequel, Happy at 100, have since been turned into a number of books and exhibitions.
It’s easy to understand why the series has been so popular. The oldest subject, Margit, was born in 1904. The youngest was born in 1910. These are people who’ve faced the Weimar era as young children, World War II as young adults, reconstruction, division, and reunification—the whole gamut of modern Germany. They’ve lived through the entire evolution of modern technology, starting with telegrams and ending with smartphones. Thormaehlen describes their portraits as “a deep look into eyes which have seen a complete century.”
The question most viewers ask, of course, is “what’s the secret?” According to the Guardian, some of the centenarians credit a glass of whiskey, others credit “remembering to breathe.” In general, it seems like they all have a pretty healthy sense of humor about life. That seems fairly inconsequential, until you look into all the recent scientific studies (like this one about the elderly residents of a small Greek island), which suggest a talent for staying calm and happy has a lot to do with longevity. Another thing echoed by Thormaehlen’s subjects? Almost all of them have lived their lives in or near the place of their birth.
Check out the full series here.