I am delighted to have been chosen by Firecracker to be April’s featured photographer. Founded by Fiona Rogers, Firecracker is a fantastic platform supporting women photographers in their practice. I am both honoured and delighted to have work featured from both Family and In this Place.
I’ve been thinking about death, or more precisely, death and photography. Quite a popular area this mortality/art malarkey but it always seems to get contemporary photographers (and artists, and art-photographers, however, you want to be described….) into all sorts of bother; either in their own minds or in the public and/or critics’ eyes.
In the 19th Century, death and photography were no stranger to one another, with portraits taken to remind the grieving of who they had lost or to send to relatives to alert them to the news. In recent times, I have seen members of my own family photograph the headstone of their dear departed and send the pics to other relatives. Not quite a body but a safer alternative. Oh, and not appreciated by the receiver (not myself).
I read a great book once by Jessica Mitford called “The American Way of Death” which looked at historical and present day funeral rites. It reinforced how abstract death had become to the 20th and now 21st Century griever. Ignore the subject, sanitise the act, then wonder what happened when we get hit with a wall of unresolved grief.
The Victorians were right to photograph their dead. Their Queen kept old Prince Albert, on his deathbed, close by in photographic form. The Victorians, well they just grieved and remembered and then got on with it all. Many people nowadays face death with loved ones, they do see it as a process and are there, all the way. Some people still have wakes. Some people secretly photograph their dead on their mobile phones in an act of remembrance they cannot quite understand themselves.
Annie Leibovitz photographed Susan Sontag dead to the outcry and chagrin of many. Fellow photographers, Sontag’s family and critical thinkers all felt uneasy and even angry at how Leibovitz could “break” this taboo. But what taboo? She was dead, Leibovitz loved her, it was a final moment, a tribute in perhaps the only manner Leibovitz could comprehend.
Others saw it as a coup, the shiny photographer photographs the magnificent essayist. How could she resist?
Sontag talked of how:
A fiction about soft or easy deaths is part of the mythology of most diseases that are not considered shameful or demeaning.
Perhaps the photographic image can redress the balance, bear witness to varying deathbed realities; not only in the dead face of Sontag herself but in others whose deaths may be easy or may be hard.
Postscript: I wrote this piece a few years back but left it in draft form. Since then my own sister has died, a horrendous cancer ridden experience of dying. I photographed her at home with her adult daughters the day before she died. I had no informed consent which made me uneasy with the process. She was dying but looked dead. The daughters wanted the photograph because it was them and their mum, yet since it was shot, they have never asked for it and I have never offered. It resides in my computer and most likely always will. So no photo with this post.
Over the years I have often photographed my extended family within their own environments. I also sometimes photographed their friends and their relationship with them. This photo is of my niece and nephew taken behind their house in the Raploch in Stirling circa 1992. The Raploch had a – rather unjust – less than glorious reputation for itself and has had significant regeneration over the past decade.
At one stage my mum, sister and brother and their respective families all lived in the Raploch and I knew the area and some of the people quite well. I always found it to be a decent place with decent people and its reputation unfair in its negativity.
Whilst these pictures were taken for personal documentation at the time I can now look at them as situated within a time and a place and what they tell us of that. This vast expanse of grass behind the houses where the kids played was full of mattresses and settees and sometimes empty bottles of cider. People probably complained of needles and dog mess but I cannot remember it being a main issue. Rather there was a freedom in this area of untamed grass and expanse of land where you could run around and jump on old furniture and play. There was a wildness and an adventure to be had.
None of my family live there now. It has been designated Urban Regeneration pathfinder status by the Scottish Executive. It has changed and for those who live there now, it is probably much improved.
Yet some part of me still believes that children might miss those vast expanses of untamed land and the possibilities that lie therein.