Photographing Dying: Walter Schels and Beata Lakotta
Heiner Schmitz, age 52
“Don’t they get it? I’m going to die! That’s all I think about, every second when I’m on my own”.
In Life Before Death , Walter Schels photographed hospice residents just before and after their death. The pictures are accompanied by interviews with the subjects by Beata Lakotta, science editor of Der Spiegel. The exhibit opened at the Wellcome Trust today.
Images from the exhibition were published in G2 and on the Guardian website last week, and Guardian Newsblog ran a piece about the strong response, both positive and negative, to the pictures.
Life Before Death is, above all, humanistic; the combination of paired pictures and interviews with the hospice residents creates a powerful triangle between the subjects’ perceptions of their own death (and life) as recorded in their interviews, the pictures that provide visual evidence that something has gone when a person dies, and what each viewer brings to these pictures: beliefs about the relationship of the body to the person, of what it means for someone to die, of what or who is actually photographed in the portrait after dying. Photographers rely on the micro-kinesics of the face- the tiny changes in expression- to convey feeling. In showing the absence of expression, these pictures remind us that what makes a face powerful or interesting is not the features but the combinations of the slightest movements.
There are parallels between the response to this exhibit and to the Body Worlds and Bodies exhibits of plastinated cadavers, although the controversies over consent are clearly absent here. The strong draw of both Life Before Death and the body exhibitions nonetheless demonstrate a fascination with what makes a body live, the limits of mechanistic explanations of what makes a person, and the question of whether and for whom it is appropriate to look upon, disassemble, or photograph the body of a person who has died. That there is a controversy reminds us of the unique relationship between each body and a person.
Life Before Death addresses death specifically, asking both “what happens when we die?” and “how does dying make us feel about living?”. Plastination exhibits ask, “how are we biologically human?”. Both ask “what is left if you take the person away”?
These questions are relevant to photojournalism as well. Where the photographer’s remit is journalistic, death is a matter to be recorded. What a body looks like becomes part of a narrative about the world. But journalism’s remit to support civil society asks that death be recorded according to certain customary practices. These practices are in turn shaped by other considerations including commercial ones as well as cultural ones. The family that does not want to see a picture of a dead body on the front page of their weekend newspaper may be off to see plastinated bodies later in the day. The pictures of Saddam Hussein’s sons bodies on the front of a paper scream sensationalism but also speak to what, as a society, we are willing to look at, and the complicated ways that it makes us feel.
Schells and Lakotta will be speaking on May 10
Exhibition runs to May 18.