Death and Photography

Death and photography have often been connected. A hundred years ago photography was a mystery and people were scared sitting in front of the camera and the photographer behind a black cloth. Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954), the Swedish author of the famous novel The tall ships about the viking Red Orm, desribed in an essay from 1947 – Min debut hos fotografen (My debut at the photographer) – his first experience with photography: A real nightmare! You´ll be run through a mangle and pressed and reduced on a piece of paper. A short citation (my translation): “What photography meant I didn´t know in detail; you became a picture on paper, and it suggested that this occurred under ghastly conditions. Old men who no longer were of any use, were photographed and hung on the wall: we have some of those at home……”.

No wonder it was scary! Long exposure times of 20 minutes or more necessitated the need of neck stabilizers of various kinds to keep the subject still. You can understand that people didn´t look too happy on old pictures. In the late 1800´s various artificial light sources were tested. For instance, when “flash powder” (magnesium) was ignited it emitted a cloud of acrid white smoke; and furthermore, the intense light of the “flash” resulted in harsh images with strong contrast.

The American writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004), herself not a photographer – I think she claimed that she never owned a camera in her whole life – wrote one of the most influential books related with photographic thinking, On Photography (1977). In the book, Sontag elaborates the idea of the predatory nature of photography: “to photograph someone is a sublimated murder”, after comparing cameras with guns and cars. In English terminology, especially, we talk about loading and aiming a camera, and about shooting a picture. Her book contains a lot more interesting stuff, and is worthwhile reading!

The French semiotic scholar Roland Barthes (1915-1980), like Susan Sontag a non-photographer, has written an interesting contribution to photography, Camera Lucida (1980). His ideas on how to look at photographs based on his own experience are very suggestive. After disregarding the non-interesting photos he divided the rest in basically two groups. The largest group contains photos giving him an “average” affect; he calls this studium. The photos that really affect him he calls punctum (prick or little hole) because these pictures contain something, usually a small detail, that really hit him. It might be good idea for all photographers to make pictures with a punctum. The problem is that what is a punctum for one viewer, may not affect another. Also Barthes saw the connection to death in portrait photography: a subject feels he/she is changed into object – a micro-experience of Death and a transformation to a ghost.

Combining Barthes´ ideas with Bengtsson´s, one can understand the fear that the photographer takes “the soul” of the subject during the act of taking a portrait. From a philosophical point of view one could wonder: when looking at a portrait of a dead person taken when the person was alive what are you seeing? Do you see a photograph of a deceased? But, since the photo was taken when the person was alive aren´t you looking at a picture of a living person?

A major reason for me to bring up the subject of death and photography is that I have created a series of photographs as a phototherapeutic experience after my daughter´s tragic death in 2008. The work was inspired mainly by the British photographer Jo Spence (1934-1992) and the American photographer Hannah Wilke (1940-1993). Both of them used therapeutic photography, or phototherapy, to deal with their breast cancers. More information can be found at their respective webpages: http://www.jospence.com and http://www.hannahwilke.com/. After reading papers by and about these outstanding photographers I became interested in trying to adjust to and develop my own phototherapy program to deal with my daughter´s suicide after a period of Bipolar II disorder. This photograph is the first in a series called Sigrid 1978-2008 – a father´s reflections. Ou can see the series here or in my webpage http//www.hbj-photo.se. The photograph here is the first in the series and is titled “Talking with a deceased”.

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