Seniors Gone Wild

When a college student went to Miami one winter in 1997, she came back with a lot of stories and a treasure trove of startling photos.

Nearly two decades ago, a college student hopped a bus from New York City on a bleak winter day. Naomi Harris was on break from the International Center of Photography, and she planned on using the time wisely… thawing out in Miami Beach and working on a passion project.

Harris wanted to photograph Holocaust survivors—“but in an upbeat manner,” she says. Typically, survivors were shot in black and white with their head in their hands, Harris remembers. “I wanted to see them with the Technicolor backdrop of Miami’s deep blue skies, palm trees, and Art Deco buildings.”

Harris explains her personal connection to the project: “My grandmother came to Canada before World War II started, leaving her entire family behind. Her two sisters survived the camps, but the rest of her family perished at the hands of the Nazis. I’ve always had survivors in my life.”

So Harris ended up socializing and staying in a run-down Art Deco apartment called Haddon Hall, built in 1940. While tourists rented the ocean-view rooms, a good portion of the others were inhabited by seniors—some of them snowbirds who came from places like New York City, Buffalo, and Canada for the winter, and others “lifers,” those who had lived there full-time for a long time.

Life, once bleak, is shown full of joie de vivre in Harris’ collection of these Haddon Hall residents. Today, Haddon Hall is also taking on another life, transforming into the gorgeous, gleaming 163-room hotel, The Hall.

But, first a nod to its history in pictures:

Evelyn at the hairdresserEvelyn at the hairdresser

Gina doing exercises by poolGina doing exercises by the pool

While many of the Art Deco apartments in South Beach were being renovated into chic hotels in the late 1990s, Haddon Hall clung to its past.

Helen admiring award plateHelen admiring an award plate

Sister's at beachSisters at the beach

Sam waiting for daughter's callSam waiting for his daughter’s call

Harris returned in 1999 to stay in Haddon Hall and befriend the seniors. “I lived there for two months in a single room with a twin bed, a dresser, a TV, and a table and chair.” She helped them with errands and had fun with them.

Ida doing her exercisesIda doing her exercises

Marie and Sonia by the poolMarie and Sonia by the pool

Harris says, “My project started as a way to show Holocaust survivors in a more positive way. But I found that all the residents shared a trait: They were still survivors. Some of them had survived the Holocaust, some survived the Great Depression, and many had survived their husbands. Many of them had children who never called. They were living in a society that forgot to take care of its elderly, and many of them were struggling financially. But they took care of each other.”

Gina drunk with Henry in lobbyGina drunk with Henry in the lobby

Lea and her ventilatorLea and her ventilator

Sister's getting out of oceanSisters getting out of the ocean

Harris’ favorite photograph is the one of Sylvia and Shimby. “Sylvia lived across the hall from me and was a lifer. In the photo, she’s 98. The painting she’s holding is a watercolor someone made of her Siamese cat, Shimby. Sylvia gave me that painting, and I still have it. I think of her every time I look at it.”

Sylvia and ShimbySylvia and Shimby

Harris’ new book, EUSA, comes out in early 2016, exploring American-themed places in Europe and European-themed places in America. Her work has appeared in magazines such as The New York Times Magazine, ESPN, and Lucky Peach. She’s represented by Circuit Gallery in Toronto and has shown “Haddon Hall” at the Contact Photo Festival. Visit her website and Instagram to learn more.