Friday, 16 September 2011

Momento Mori

For a while now I've wanted to write about the subject of photography and death, but have struggled to find a context with which to write. The theme has been on my mind for the last month for a number of reasons...

Firstly, I am organisng an exhibition at Photofusion (which opens next week, on 22 September) featuring two photographers whose work is concerned with the death of a parent. When André Penteado's father committed suicide, he picked up his camera and took pictures... of the funeral, of his journey to and from the funeral (which was in Brazil), and then for a year later in the form of a visual diary. Striving to have one last physical contact with his father, André took photographs of himself wearing his father's clothes, eyes closed, pensive, on a stone grey background. He then took pictures of the left over empty hangers.

©Andre Penteado, Dad's Clothes

The other photographer is Joachim Froese, who has made quite a few bodies of work following the death of his mother, and the possessions she left behind. The work he will show at Photofusion is from Archive, a study of what happens to possessions once they have been taken out of context; when his mother's belongings were sent to him in Australia, he found they had no meaning for him anymore. His photographs show precarious stacks of china and books, a comment on the constructions of our own personal memory.

While working closely with these photographers, I have had the pleasure to meet (if only on the phone for now) Sue Steward, a journalist and independent curator who, on the death of her mother in 2009, found an urge to photograph the dead body. In an article she wrote for The Guardian, she describes the sense of guilt she felt as she committed this act, looking round to check no one was looking. But then she found that many other photographers had also had this impulse; most famously Annie Leibowitz photographing her partner Susan Sontag.

©Annie Liebowitz, November 2004, Untitled

All these conversations got me thinking about the link between photography and death, and then it became rather too relevant when I heard that my uncle died. He had been very sick, so it wasn't unexpected, but it doesn't make the sense of loss any less painful for us all. At the funeral, my father asked if I had brought my camera... and, although I had thought about it, I felt that it was inappropriate.

But a couple of days later I had a Roland Barthes moment. At the wake, my cousin told me that he had found many old photographs of our parents when they were children, and he emailed the scans to me shortly after. I felt like Barthes in his Camera Lucida... I was looking at picture of my uncle at a very young age and recognised him completely. This wasn't the sick old man I had last seen on a hospital bed at Christmas time, thin and wizzened, struggling to hear and lethargic with drugs. Here, in the eyes of this 10 year old boy, I saw the man I wanted to remember; the man with an amazing brain and an insatiable curiosity.

My late Uncle Rémi is on the left, my mother in the middle, and their brother Eric on the right. My mother told me she remembers going to get this picture taken, and she was scared as she thought it would hurt. How differently children respond to the camera these days!

At the beginning of this week I came across this film on the Guardian website, and I finally found the context with which to write this post. In the wake of the Japanese tsunami, hundreds of volunteers from the Fujifilm factory are collecting photographs found in the damaged areas, cleaning them, and archiving them in order to "save the memories of a nation". Many of the images have washed off the paper, a reference rather too close to what happened to the people depicted on them, and yet the volunteers still feel it is important to keep the indecipherable images. As one volunteer reads out the caption on the back of a photograph (dated 1954!) he turns it over to find the image completely gone. But we must keep it, he says, as it may help to identify the other pictures in the album.

The cleaned photographs are then organised by where they were found and sent to a centre where people can browse for their memories. As one man says, the people who go there "have lost their homes and their past". Photographs are such an important key to our past.  I was so pleased to see the old photographs of my uncle, which still exist seventy years later, but I can't help wondering whether the children of our children of this digital age will be blessed with such tools as they get older. When, in eighty years time, my friend's daughter passes away, will her children have photographs of her as she is now? Or will they be locked in some digital timewarp, following the fate of floppy disks and the like. For all we know, we may be living in what will become the Dark Ages.

It's time to start printing pictures. As for photographing the dead, or the impulse to photograph what's left behind, it's a theme that occupies many photographers, and has inspired a book by Audrey Linkman. For my part, I am looking forward to hearing Sue Steward in conversation with André and Joachim at Photofusion on 11 October; I think it will be an interesting discussion, if perhaps not a very up-beat one.


  1. Really great post Carole. I'm sorry to read about your Uncle Rémi's passing though.

    Scary thought about us possibly living in a dark age. Then again, at least they'll come across stashes of vinyl and CD's in years to come. So all is not lost I guess!

    Loving the blog by the way.

  2. Also loving the blog. Thank you very much for putting the Photofusion exchibition together. I went to the gallery talk and found both the work itself and the discussion with the artists fascinating.


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