Back to the future: Growing older, or up?

(CNN)From the sight of skyscrapers in New York and the taste of alfajores in Buenos Aires, to the beams of endless light in Paris and the sounds of Björk and Sigur Rós in Reykjavik, all people share a universal journey -- growing older.

Growing older is an inevitable experience consisting of numerous lessons and changes. Many of us undertake the process of learning how to speak, read and write, while we also witness firsthand the season of fall arriving in our own bodies, our hair changing color and falling like the leaves from a tree.
Photographer Irina Werning
Photographer Irina Werning sheds light upon this universal journey in "Back to the Future," an ongoing photo series that began in 2011.
Werning's retro-looking photos are re-creations of ones taken in past moments of people's lives, and they are simply a "celebration of old pictures," Werning said.
    The idea for "Back to the Future" was formulated when Werning was scanning old photos from a wedding of one of her friends' parents. She noticed one photo in particular of her friend's mother and immediately fell in love with it.

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    "We were walking one day on the street, and he (my friend) said, 'This is where that picture was taken.' I happened to have time so I stood there and I started thinking how (his mother) would look like today and how the street would have looked like before and now," Werning said.
    That moment and Werning's endless curiosity for and love toward old photos eventually led to "Back to the Future."
    "In the beginning, I contacted people. Then, the project became viral on the Internet, so people started contacting me. I often posted on my website where I was going, and people would send me old pictures of themselves," Werning said.
    A photo from New York shows a woman named Leanne squeezed into a laundry basket, her beaming smile still infectious like it was in 1982.
    Moments from 1983 resurface as well. Pancho in Buenos Aires poses for a portrait, his striped tie looking much neater after so many years, however.
    Also ready for his close up, the now-adult Adrien in Paris appears just as happy to be clad in a cowboy costume as he did when he was a little boy.
    And we also stumble upon Kristin and Birta in Reykjavik, Iceland, who take straight to the floor to crawl all the way back to 1993.

    Some photos have a deeper story

    Werning recreates old photos of all kinds, from spontaneous snapshots of babies, such as Leanne's photo, to shooting old portraits with much more of a story behind them.
    "(Leanne's) picture is just a baby's snapshot. There's not much of a story behind it. I think she had gone inside there and her mother had found her inside there and went quickly to grab her camera, and shot the picture," Werning said.
    Werning notes that the photo of a woman named Isabella has much more of a story behind it.
    "(Isabella's) family contacted me because she was having her 100th birthday. This woman was very loved by the whole family. She had escaped from Austria during the war because she was Jewish, and she went to live in New York. Every year, she would go back ... to Austria and help someone come to the U.S. She was a great inspiration to her whole family," Werning said.
    Having shot about 400 photos in 35 countries, Werning had to overcome various kinds of challenges regarding the aesthetics of the photos.
    "Each picture is like a completely different world. I work on lots of pictures at the same time. Sometimes you don't find something, so you have to end up making everything. Of course, you can't find some exact clothing or object exactly like in the picture. Often, I have to make it or alter something that I buy. Lots of challenges, but this is the part I most enjoy," Werning said.
    Not only are the aesthetics important when re-creating photos, other details play a role in the execution and effectiveness of the photo as well. In the photo of Chris, for example, the facial expression was crucial to recreating her childhood photo.
    "We couldn't get (Chris') expression right, until she told me that in the (old) picture, she was screaming 'no' to her mother. Once we knew exactly what she was saying, we could shoot the picture because the expression had to be her shouting 'no' as in the old picture."
    Regardless of where Werning travels to recreate old photos, she always tries to include something specific in each of her re-creations. If in Berlin, it is important for Werning to find photos with symbols of significant historical moments, such as the Berlin Wall. If in India, the cultural traditions the country is known for becomes essential, such as its weddings.
    "When I travel, I'm always looking for things that speak about that country ... I always do a lot of research and ask people and try to make people give me (specific) types of pictures," Werning said.
    What makes Werning's "Back to the Future" so captivating and moving is how it both initiates an exploration into memories while at the same time it evokes the imagination.

    Viewers have their own take on aging

    Werning's photos leave viewers to reflect on whether or not there is a distinction between growing older and growing up.
    Physically and mentally, all people grow older, but perhaps deep down we are each still just the same child we once were, with countless lessons and changes still to come as we continue on our journey.
    Werning was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has received many awards, including for "Back to the Future" with which she most recently won the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards for Fine Art Portraits.
    "Back to the Future" has also been published as a photo book, featuring photos as well as some of the emails Werning has received from people from all around the world interested in journeying back in time.
    Although the book is comprised of people unrelated to one another, "Back to the Future" is characteristic of an intimate family photo album. There is a clear sense of individuality layered within the universality underlying each pixel of every photo.
    "Some people say these pictures make them laugh, other people say that they cry. I get all types of reactions. For me, I laugh when I see (the pictures), I smile," Werning said.