Photographer Ellen Warner Captures an Overlooked Side of Femininity

Modestine Brown with her collection of stuffed animals photographed by Ellen Warner.

The photojournalist Ellen Warner has spent her life traveling the world, taking pictures of people whose ways of life and personal stories are relatively unknown to the general public. She’s photographed indigenous cultures from China, Iran, East Africa, India, and Europe—and in the process has explored the visual relationship between customs and styles of dress and the history of the culture itself. But Warner’s work also reveals a more delicate and personal side of her many subjects. With her portrait work, she’s been able to tap into this core ethos—telling the little-known and often marginalized stories of folks she’s met through her travels—while leaving behind the objective eye of a journalist. Her latest project, a book titled The Second Half: 40 Women Reveal Life After 50, speaks deeply to this emotional side of her work.

Over the span of 15 years, Warner photographed and conducted interviews with 40 women from all walks of life, from all over the globe, all of whom were between the ages of 50 and 107. Some names were recognizable—including 92-year-old Academy Award-winning actress Olivia de Havilland and cellist Yo-Yo-Ma’s 85-year-old mother Marina Ma—while others were simply fascinating women she met along the way. “With other projects that I’ve worked on, if I’m photographing tribal groups in North Vietnam, I go to North Vietnam to complete the project,” Warner told me from her home in New York City. “But if you happen to be somewhere on holiday, there are going to be women there—they are 52% of the population. There are women everywhere. And it’s incredible, the things that happen when you search for women whose stories are not often told.” Below, Warner shares with W the backstories to a selection of works from her book, which is available now via Brandeis University Press.

Jacqueline Delia Bremond photographed by Ellen Warner

“Jacqueline Delia was the reason this whole book first came about,” Warner said. “I was in Patmos, Greece one summer, a little island right near Turkey. I was photographing this beautiful French woman, Jacqueline, and she had just turned 70. At the time, I was in my Fifties, and I found myself asking her, ‘What’s it like to be 70? How do you look to the future? What prepared you for this? What advice would you give to somebody my age?’ After that portrait assignment I thought, This is what I wanna know. I want know what it’s like to be 80, 90, and 100.

Fathia Al Sulimani photographed by Ellen Warner

“Fathia was one of the first woman doctors in Saudi Arabia,” Warner said. “When she was about 14 or 15, she and several of her friends wanted to study science, but they were told, No—you can read, you can write, it’s time for you to get married now. So without telling their parents, they went to the King of Saudi Arabia at the time, King Faisal, who had said that every Friday before his prayers, anybody who had a complaint could come to him. They waited in line, and finally it was their turn—they handed him a piece of paper listing their complaint. He looked at it and she said his face broke out into a smile. He told them, ‘This is what I want for our kingdom. You can start science on Monday.’”

Fatma Doufen photographed by Ellen Warner

Fatma Doufen, a Tuareg nomad from the Sahara, was born around 1945 and interviewed at age 62.

Leslie Caron photographed by Ellen Warner

“Leslie Caron is this very well-known French actress who was in the film Gigi,” Warner explains. “She did a lot of other stuff as well, but she was really famous for that. A friend knew her and made that introduction. After I photographed her, I gave my assistant the film—he took all the worst rolls and used a particular developer [to test out the photos]. They looked great, so he used the same developer with the best rolls, but used a new bottle of developer. The pictures were all ruined; only the worst rolls had been processed. That is the nightmare every photographer fears—but at least we ended up with some pictures. I actually really like the picture of Caron featured in the book. I mean, I think it looks like Gigi’s entrance hall in Paris.”

Odette Walling photographed by Ellen Warner

“I was going to go to Paris because a friend had just moved there and they were giving a big party,” Warner said. “I was talking to my neighbor across the garden wall and asked, ‘How am I gonna find women in Paris?’ She said, ‘Well, you have to photograph my husband’s aunt, Odette.’ The time to shoot was all set up and whatnot, and I knocked on Odette’s door in Paris. She opened it up and she was very gracious and beautiful-looking, very elegant, sitting there with her little dog and her cigarette. But she said, ‘I’m not going to be photographed! My family is so manipulative, I’m not going to be photographed.’” I sat down and started asking her about all sorts of things, taking notes, writing things down. She said she’d usually spend most of her days in bed, but after an hour, I noticed that—here she was, dressed very elegantly and she had makeup on. So without asking her, I set up my tripod and put the Hasselblad on it and started to take pictures. I sort of fell in love with Odette. She was very ornery, but she was totally charming. That was just one of those moments where I thought, you have to be brave. Put the tripod down, see what happens.”

Ni Ketut Takil photographed by Ellen Warner

“Ni Ketut was from Bali,” Warner said. “Bali’s New Year is called Nyepi—we happened to be there when it was going on. For several months prior, young boys in the area made these monsters out of papier mâché. On their New Year’s Eve, these monsters, which represent evil spirits, are marched through town and then they’re burned. On Nyepi day, you’re not allowed to leave your house, put on any lights or run any machinery. If you’re a tourist, you have to stay in your hotel. The airport is closed. And the purpose is so that the evil spirits will think the island is uninhabited and they won’t come back. We had rented a little house in a village and I was walking along with a lady who managed the house during this procession of monsters. I saw Ni Ketut, and I said, ‘Who’s that beautiful woman over there?’ She said, ‘She’s my auntie.’ So I photographed and interviewed her and the woman who managed the house translated.”

Georgia Nikitara photographed by Ellen Warner

“Back in Patmos, I was sitting in a cafe—there’s a lovely, tiny little cafe that’s high on the hill, overlooking the Aegean Sea—and it’s run by a wonderful, beatific woman whose mother was so beautiful, her name was Georgia. I asked if I could photographer her and she said, ‘Yes, but she doesn't speak English, but my daughter could translate for you.’ This was just after I’d started to work on The Second Half. The daughter translated, and there are a lot of very personal questions: What was the happiest time in your life? What was the saddest time in your life? I thought afterwards that this granddaughter had a conversation with her grandmother that she probably never would’ve had.”

Marilyn Nelson photographed by Ellen Warner

“Marilyn Nelson was actually the last person that I shot for this project,” Warner said. “Marilyn is the Poet Laureate of Connecticut, and so elegant. I photographed her during the pandemic—we were just outside on her porch.”

Lali Al Balushi photographed by Ellen Warner

“Lali Al Balushi has had such a hard life: she was illiterate, her mother died when she was very young and her stepmother stopped her from going to school, then married her off very early,” Warner said. “She had three children and her husband left her and took all three children with him, including a newborn baby. Then she was married again, and that man also left her. She worked in a factory; a taxi driver drove her to work every day. They fell in love and married, and she’s really happy now—her children are all around her. I’m trying to find her and get the book to her. I want her to see herself, and know that she’s been heard halfway around the world.”