Monday, November 3, 2008

Life Before Death

Amy's earlier post on postmortem photography reminded me of an article I had read sometime ago about a photo exhibit entitled "Life Before Death". This exhibit contains 24 pairs of black-and-white photos, one before and one after death. They were on display earlier this year as part of the Wellcome Collection, an art collection in London that focuses on the development of medicine.

Journalist Beate Lakotta and photographer Walter Schels spent a year following hospice patients in Germany. The people they photographed ranged from 17 months to 83 years old. They also conducted interviews of those they photographed.

The photos above are of 67 yo Edelgard Clavey. “I want so very much to die. I want to become part of that vast extraordinary light. But dying is hard work.”

The photos below are of 52 year old Heiner Schmitz. “Don’t they get it? I’m going to die! That’s all I think about, every second when I’m on my own."

Per an article on the exhibit, the goal of the artists was to break through the taboo of talking about death. "The dying want to talk about what it feels like to die, and the living ought to listen, for death can strike at any time."

When comparing the photos, I could see the normal signs of death, eyes sunken in, a loss of fullness in the face. But something interesting I noticed in all the photos was a shadow cast across the faces of the person after they died. It's as if a light has gone out.


I must admit when I first saw these photos, I found them a bit disturbing. When I really looked at them and started reading about the exhibit, I changed my view. During an interview about the exhibit Schels said, "People are almost always pretending something, but these people had lost that need. I felt it enabled me as a photographer to get as close as it's possible to get to the core of a person; when you're facing the end, everything that's not real is stripped away. You're the most real you'll ever be, more real than you've ever been before".

4 Responses to “Life Before Death”

Anonymous said...
November 4, 2008 at 12:24 PM

Hmm. I'm surprised this hasn't been done before. The before/after collage lends the potential for profound commentary on the yin/yang of life and death. Such a fascinatingly simple idea for such a ubiquitous theme. But as I reflect on these images, I agree more with your initial impression of the work. They seem a tad exploitative while not adding much to what we already know about life and death. Maybe it's because the people are so detached from us as viewers, there images of people we've never met. Certainly, the most profound way to learn about the deep existential issues with death and dying is God forbid, to be a witness of someone as they go through it or be there for a friend who has experienced the death of a loved one. I don't want to speak for others, but I imagine many feel the same way I do: death and dying sucks, it hurts, it's unavoidable and it shakes you to the core and makes you ask, "how can we go from being so full of life and alive to death so quickly and permanently? How can our spirits and our life just go away?" These images don't move me in near the same way, they even seem a little wrong or out of place. Maybe it's because it seems unnecessary to view a strangers face while alive and dead to understand the difference. Unfortunately, it's a difference we already know and these images don't provide further exploration or solace for me to the existentialism and the loss that plague the human condition. Anyone else see it differently?


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
November 4, 2008 at 9:05 PM

I didn't get the sense of exploitation or shock value when I first looked at these, although I could see how that may be understood from a general public stand point.

As a palliative care practitioner, I see these faces daily, and I think the display of these photographs helps provoke all of us to contemplate death in a much more visceral and profound way that we seem to escape thru our daily routine.

I think the addition of the interviews with the photographs probably heightens the impact and provides more depth.


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
November 4, 2008 at 9:05 PM

ANd thanks for your thoughtful comments!


Anonymous said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

Hmm. I'm surprised this hasn't been done before. The before/after collage lends the potential for profound commentary on the yin/yang of life and death. Such a fascinatingly simple idea for such a ubiquitous theme. But as I reflect on these images, I agree more with your initial impression of the work. They seem a tad exploitative while not adding much to what we already know about life and death. Maybe it's because the people are so detached from us as viewers, there images of people we've never met. Certainly, the most profound way to learn about the deep existential issues with death and dying is God forbid, to be a witness of someone as they go through it or be there for a friend who has experienced the death of a loved one. I don't want to speak for others, but I imagine many feel the same way I do: death and dying sucks, it hurts, it's unavoidable and it shakes you to the core and makes you ask, "how can we go from being so full of life and alive to death so quickly and permanently? How can our spirits and our life just go away?" These images don't move me in near the same way, they even seem a little wrong or out of place. Maybe it's because it seems unnecessary to view a strangers face while alive and dead to understand the difference. Unfortunately, it's a difference we already know and these images don't provide further exploration or solace for me to the existentialism and the loss that plague the human condition. Anyone else see it differently?