First off, I’m so sorry about the sudden death of your sweetheart – I do know something of the pain and confusion, the despair and deep anguish you are going through, so I want to send you my own feelings of compassion and love at this time. I haven’t read much of your blog yet but the fact that you are sharing stuff so soon after Claire’s death is, I believe, not just a brave thing but a healing thing too and the hopefully the best way forward. As you say, being public about your grief helps you to feel normal, that you are not alone and from that we can all take huge amounts of comfort.
Our son Joshua died in early 2011 and I too immediately started to write and muse about how my interests in photography could help see me through. I didn’t publish anything at first, but then we started our own website to honour and remember Josh – www.beyondgoodbye.co.uk – and that has led us to get involved with a number of charities dedicated to helping people through grief, and try and get a bit more acceptance in what people describe as our ‘death averse culture’. Have to say it has not been easy, but then it was not really a conscious decision to go ‘public’ with our grief – it just happened cos that’s what we do and we wanted to able able to stay in touch as much as possible with all Josh’s friends – and where better than on-line. The difficult bit has been the way many of our close friends (in the ‘real’ world) seemed to have been scared off but our continual mention of Josh and the public things we have done for him since he died – grief is traditionally seen as a private matter – it does afterall get in the way of life’s day to day business of earning a living, cleaning the car, watching footer, having sex and generally being happy and productive. Or does it? Possibly, but only if you see grief as something in which we shut ourselves away in a darkened room so that we can be miserable all the time. Which of course it is not. Â And that said, two and a half years after Josh died and all those difficult feelings that we and our friends have experienced have now begun to ‘normalise’, I think that by not hiding away (although I still do that a lot of the time) we have been able to face fears (for many the worst fear they could imagine – the death of their own child) by sharing them and in doing so all our lives are enriched – at least I hope so.
So thank you for sharing your grief – its not a shameful thing and these days I believe its not such a difficult thing – the internet has given us such great opportunities in this regard – you have made us feel a bit more normal and I hope you feel the same.
The drive to understand experience, and make sense of the world is as vital as the need to breathe â€“ to eat.Â Â Â Â And so it is that trying to understand and give meaning to lifeâ€™s final moment is equally significant.Â Â Â This may be a vain attempt to make sense of the inexplicable but for the moment the process of coming to terms with and accepting Joshâ€™s death has inevitably raised the issue of our own mortality â€“ the fear it holds, even the release it promises.Â Â Â Â A year and some months on from this tragedy I am beginning to feel accustomed to my grief.Â Â Â Itâ€™s not that life is any easier or that the pain of our loss is any less sharp.Â Â Â Â Itâ€™s just that I know that pain better and my grief is not such a hostile companion.
What I am also beginning to understand is that we are at the start of a new journey with and without Josh.Â Â Â Â And for this I am deeply grateful to our friend Fiona Rodman, a psychotherapist and very wise woman.Â Â The following is an attempt to synthesize some of her ideas as contained in her recent thesis â€“ â€œMourning and Transformation â€“ Sifting for Gold.â€Â (MA University of Middlesex)
Sifting for Gold
After I had read Fionaâ€™s thesis for the first time, I had a real sense of a burden lessened; that the grief I had felt for Josh was less complicated and more natural than I had previously supposed it to be.Â Â Â Â Â Here was an account of the mourning process, told not just from a theoretical perspective, but illuminated with the real insight from her own personal experience.Â Â Â Fionaâ€™s mother died at an early age, she endured the break up of a long marriage, and witnessed her father lose his own battle to dementia.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Her journey – her different journeys of coming to terms with these deaths inform her conclusions of what it means to mourn.
To a certain extent I think I have been caught up with what I thought society had expected of me in dealing with Joshâ€™s deathâ€¦Â how to behave, what to say, what to feel.Â Â Â How could it be otherwise.Â Â Even in this modern age with its fast changing moral and ethical codes, we are so influenced by long standing attitudes to death and its aftermath, that it seems the only the right thing to do is to rely on the consensus and on traditional ideas when we are trying to find a way forward on the journey through grief.Â Â Â Â In her essay Fiona, explores the connections and the tensions between personal emotions and public expectations.Â Â Â What Iâ€™d like to do here is to try to extract from this necessarily lengthy and rigorously academic piece of work, some of her basic ideas that have helped me understand a little more some of the thoughts and feelings we have all been experiencing since Josh died.
â€œSifting for Goldâ€ is concerned with the transformative power of grief.Â Â Â Â Â Â Anotherâ€™s death, particular someone who is close to us and some one we love, is always a life changing event.Â Â This might seem so obvious, it shouldnâ€™t need saying, but until Josh died I hadnâ€™t fully understood how difficult it is for many people to accept this change.Â Â Â Â Fear of our own mortality certainly kicks in; confronted with the fact of anotherâ€™s death, or another personâ€™s loss, our thoughts about the inevitability of our own death become so uncomfortable, they prevent us from truly seeing, or at least acknowledging anotherâ€™s pain.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â As a family, we have all experienced having to skirt round the issue of Joshuaâ€™s death, for the sake of not embarrassing a friend or an acquaintance.Â Â Â Â Â Yes, its weird, but to hide oneâ€™s own feelings for the sake of anotherâ€™s shame is, I have found, a common occurrence.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â All too often, we hear that people just donâ€™t know what to say, but this becomes understandable when you realise that itâ€™s not just that anotherâ€™s death is such an ominous reminder, but that the bereaved have indeed undergone a fundamental change.Â Â Â Â Â How that change is managed (or not) is the subject of Fionaâ€™s essay.
Her own mother passed away when Fiona was in her early twenties.Â Â Â But, it wasnâ€™t until many years later that she discovered that she had not properly mourned her motherâ€™s death.Â Â Â At the time she had felt dislocated and adrift and that there were deep constraints on sharing her feelings with her immediate family. Â â€œWe were closeâ€, she writes,Â â€œas if clinging on to a shipwreck together.Â We could not however, weep together, fall apart, sob and hold each other.â€Â Â Â Â Her father although loving and loyal, belonged to a generation that had known many war deaths; they were the survivors who had been severely traumatized by the horrors of war but who had learnt to suppress open expression of grief.Â Â Â Â â€œLaughâ€ he would say â€œand the world laughs with you; cry and you cry aloneâ€. Â Â Fiona is only now aware of how this view had shaped her own emotional responses, leaving her feeling alone in a world where â€œthe role of tears as communication is completely denied.â€
The standard model of grieving in 20th century Britain relies heavily on the stoic â€“ our way of doing things has been to keep a lid on our emotions, to be strong and to weep only in private, and to avoid any public display of frailty or despair.Â Â Â And the advice is to put some kind of time frame on the business of processing loss and to find closure â€“ after Josh died a close friend even counseled that to avoid becoming excessively morbid, we would eventually have to â€˜forgetâ€™ Josh.Â Â Â Â Â The idea is that sooner or later we must â€˜move onâ€™ in order to regain the composure and the equilibrium necessary to continue with the rest of our lives.Â Â Â To do otherwise is to risk a pathological descent into melancholia and depression and the social exclusion that will inevitably follow.
Death of course is all around us – over 10,000 people die every day in the UK, yet for most of us contact with death is relatively rare and as individuals many us lack the experience as well as the social models to help us deal with grief and those that mourn.Â Â Â Â Â And when death happens unexpectedly many of us are understandably but sadly ill equipped to handle the emotions that ensue.Â Â Â â€œWe donâ€™t learn to mourn at our motherâ€™s kneeâ€ observes Su Chard in our film â€˜Beyond Goodbyeâ€™ (Su is the celebrant who conducted Joshâ€™s funeral.)Â Â Â Â Â Conflicting feelings of sadness, despair, confusion, anger and guilt, which Iâ€™m sure all who knew Josh, will be familiar, need to find expression.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â But if the emotional climate of society is such that we show only those emotions deemed appropriate for the occasion then what will happen to the inner rage, the impulse to self-destruct, and high levels of anxiety, ambivalence or even the manic laughter that can overcome us from time to time.Â Â Not being able to mourn her mother Fiona writes of being exposed to terrible and â€œunlived emotional states.â€Â Â Â Her experience of loss and separation were never really resolved but continued to provoke, â€œturbulent unintegrated long fingers of painâ€¦that seemed to clamp my heart and block the flow of my beingâ€.
I was faced with a similar â€˜blockâ€™ when aged 21 (a year younger than Josh) I too was involved in a road accident.Â Â Â I was on holiday with my girlfriend in the former Yugoslavia, when the car we were traveling in was hit by another, ran off then road and fell into a deep and fast flowing river.Â Â Â My girlfriend, Gillian could not swim.Â Â Â She died.Â Â I survived.Â Â Â Â Â Â Totally unfamiliar with very unexpected feelings (particularly guilt and shame) and without the necessary understanding from friends or family, (and without professional help) I too now understand that I was unable to process my grief in a particularly healthy way.Â Â Â Â Much of this really was the isolation that I experienced.Â Â Â Returning to London, I felt shunned by many of my friends who had their own fears of how to behave, as well as my parents need to protect me from extremes of emotions.Â Â Â Â Â Â This left me in a place where I felt completely disconnected both from my girlfriend Gillian, as well as from my environment.Â Â Â Â Â At the time I would have seen this as distressing but acceptable, and my attempts to brave my way through it as honorable â€“ the thing to do was to make the best out of a shit situation and to move on.Â Â Â Â Â I had the rest of my life to get on with and to allow a tragedy such as this to mark me felt like failure.Â Â Â Â Â But I had been marked and I had been changed.Â Â Â Â Â And without the adequate means both personally and socially to express my feelings and with no acknowledgement of the importance of the grieving journey, I think I became quite introspective, learning how to cope on my own, actively avoiding close emotional involvement.Â Â Â I lost contact with Gillianâ€™s family and to a degree I lost my way in life.
But does surviving such untimely tragedies or even the anticipated death of a parent have to be such a lonely experience.Â Â Â Â Â In retrospect Fiona identified a sense of an â€œarrested capacity to mournâ€ in the years following her motherâ€™s death.Â Â Â Â Â This led her to explore just what it is within the cultural and psychological life of our society that determines they way we grieve and how mourning has been understood by academics, writers as well as the bereaved themselves.Â Â Â Â Â And going all the way back to Freud she discovers that, after a death, it is the way that we understand our sense of self in the world that plays a crucial role in our ability to regain the necessary psychological balance and the stability to continue living as functional human beings.Â Â â€œSelfâ€ she posits, can be understood in two different ways – there is the idea of the â€˜objective separate mindâ€™ and the idea of the â€˜subjective interconnected mindâ€™.Â Â Â Â Â The first of these philosophical positions, the idea of the self as a separate finite entity underscores a very western view that we are each (at our core) unique and autonomous individuals existing alongside other individuals in a highly individualistic society.Â Â Â Â Â Â When it comes to processing trauma, of which grief and mourning come high on the list, our way of dealing with it is necessarily an internal and private journey of gradually loosening our attachment to our lost loved one until equilibrium is restored.Â Â Â Â Itâ€™s a finite (even measurable) process which if unbounded becomes pathologicalÂ â€“ basically youâ€™re sick if you grieve too long.
Contrast this with more contemporary yet still relatively unfamiliar philosophical ideas which shift the emphasis away from the â€˜isolatedâ€™ self and the separate mind to a more relationally embedded model of the self, in which mourning and recovery are seen as being facilitated or impeded more or less in response to and with the help of others.Â Â Â Searching out and recording the experiences of fellow travelers in grief, Fiona findings were confirmed in two ways.Â Â Â Â First, whilst previous wisdom was heavily influenced by the pressure to get over it and move on, these new ideas revealed mourning to be a two-fold process with a constant oscillation between deep sadness and attempts to reconstruct life.Â Â Â Â Now, as I write this, I believe I am in recovery mode.Â Â An hour ago I was experiencing one of those painfully raw moments of missing Josh.Â Â Â Later the hurt will return.
The second of Fionaâ€™s findings was that processing trauma is not best achieved in isolation â€“ Fiona writes, â€œwe need others deeply alongside us in our mourning, we need to be known.â€Â Â Rather than a private, closed, exclusively personal experience, mourning is here seen as an inter-relational process in which dependency on others is vital for us to heal our fractured life, reassert our sense of self and our ongoing being.
It might seem obvious that to share oneâ€™s loss and be supported by others can only be of value to the bereaved, but the actual process of mourning extends way beyond any public ritual in which an open (but limited) form of grieving is found acceptable.Â Â The funeral, that necessary rite of passage, has more often been seen as providing opportunity for a final farewell, part of a closure rather than the start of a journey through grief.
Many people found that our funeral for Josh was not only deeply moving, but it was also quite unique with its emphasis on creating a symbolic journey in which we carried his casket into the main room at the Matara Centre, on to the next and then out into the night.Â Â Â Â But if it was remarkable, maybe thatâ€™s only because in this country we seem to have lost the idea of a collectivised ritual and its ability to engage in or invent symbolic acts that give meaning to the loss the community is feeling and to the possibilities for healing.
In â€˜Sifting for Goldâ€, Fiona describes her visit to the Musee Branly in Paris (â€œnot like walking into a museum but a prayerâ€) in which displays of mourning rituals from all over the globe included ceremonial objects that marked death and its journey as being important as much for the mourners as for the deceased; like the carved wooden boat inlaid with mother of pearl, in which the bones of the deceased were finally sent out to sea after the long community ritual.
What is important here is the way a traditional community will come together and create elaborate rituals, in some cases lasting for years, in order not only to register the loss and its impact, but to help construct a voyage to a different relationship with the deceased.Â Â Â Â As we know in many traditional cultures, the dead remain as valuable spiritual guides for the living.
Our family was hugely supported by our local community in organizing Joshâ€™s funeral and their creative involvement deepens the sense of a shared loss as well as providing the impetus for building a new relationship with Joshua.Â Â The viral candle lighting ceremony was highly symbolic of the way we had all been in some way influenced by Josh and could share that with others.
But creating this ritualized journey, (as old as time itself) and the possibilities that holds for a communal sense of loss is not so possible in a world where the individual, the lonely and the private self is the norm.
This brings us back to Fionaâ€™s definition of self, of how we see ourselves, our â€œselfâ€.Â Â Are we unique, separate identities or part of a continuum with the rest of humanity.Â Â Â Â Â Â In both cases of course we need to relate to others, but within the model that Fiona describes as the intrapsychic or separated self, we can survive without the other in the belief that nothing of our own self has been actually lost.Â Â Â Not only that, we can endure the loss knowing that our mourning will be a finite process with a final letting go signaling a healthy outcome to our grieving journey.
However if our view of who we are is based on the idea of our â€œselvesâ€ being part of a commonality of all human experience, (a sense that we all more alike than different) and that we exist as relational beings, then when someone close to us dies, we feel that death as a loss of part of our own â€˜selfâ€™.Â Â I suspect that all those who knew Josh, all those who had any kind of relationship with him, will accept that when he died something inside of them died as well.
CONTINUING THE BOND
Fiona describes the traditional approach to mourning as â€œa cutting off and a moving onâ€.Â Â Â But this need to detach oneself from the deceasedhas obscured another aspect of the work of mourning â€“ to repair the disruption to the relationship we had (have) with the deceased.
Fiona describes the anxiety and the rawness at the loss of her mother, remembering in detail her illness and her death as if it were yesterday.Â Â Â â€œAt the same time I could not remember at all.Â Â Â Such was the pain of bringing her into mind that I could not draw on a sense of continuing relationship with her inside me.â€Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Twenty years on and in the light of subsequent losses, Fiona identifies this â€œcontinuing relationshipâ€ with the deceased as key to regaining the confidence and the stability we need to carry on living, to carry on living with anotherâ€™s death. Â Â She draws on the ideas of psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, that â€œwe need to separate out the loss of the other from the loss of what we mean to them, the person that we were in their eyesâ€.
That last phrase â€œthe person that we were in their eyesâ€.Â Â Â Â Â Eyes that no longer see; the person that we were and are no more.Â Â Â Â Â We lost Josh and what he meant to us, but we also lost that part of us that was Josh and what we meant to him.Â Â Â Fiona desperately misses being a daughter to her mother, â€œof mattering to herâ€ and I have not only lost a son I have lost my role as a father to that son.Â Â Â Â Â No longer can I advise and argue with him, no longer can I protect and admire him, no more long phone calls to gather up his news, no more am I his last port of call.
With Joshuaâ€™s death we are changed and as much as we need to come to terms with his, or any death we need to acknowledge our changed selves, something I was not aware of when my girlfriend died all those years ago.
Fiona cites the work ofÂ The Compassionate Friends, a self help group that supports parents who have lost their children.Â Â Â By meeting regularly, mourners are encouraged to name and speak of their child and to hold rituals on important dates.Â Â Â Â Â Memories of the child and the parentâ€™s grief are in this way validated and held in mutual recognition.Â Â Â Â â€œThrough this shared spaceâ€ Fiona writes, â€œa transformation is facilitated in which the child comes to occupy a different, still living, inside space.Â Â Â Â The pain that the child is dead and will never again be present in the way that it was, is given room to be, but through a shared space and over time this other internal journey can take place.â€
As I read these lines I wondered how this could be possible.Â Â Â Â Â With only memories and history to sustain us, with no actual Josh, how could a new living relationship grow inside of me?Â Â Â Â Â Â Then I was reminded of the various creative acts we have done in order to continue our bond with Joshua â€“ the tree planted on a farm where Josh and his friends would often gather, has now become a Mecca for those same friends and family alike, the photographs I have made since he died, the film we produced as a celebration of his life, this website, all are sustenance for our new relationship with him.Â Â Â And they are all necessarily shared and communicative experiencesÂ – on Joshâ€™s still active Facebook page we talk to him (Josh we talk to YOU) and in speaking of Josh in these varied ways we acknowledge that new relationship not only with him but with each other.
In not relinquishing, in not cutting off from Josh we are in Fionaâ€™s words â€œreshaping and continuing the bond in a different way, a way that is not a denial that the relationship has changed forever, but a way that honours the place and the significance of the deceased in ongoing life.â€
That our ongoing lives have been transformed by Josh death is beyond dispute. Fionaâ€™s conclusion is that it will be the deep inner work of reframing our â€œselfâ€ in relation to others that will make them worthwhile once more.
The title of Fionaâ€™s essay comes from a line she found in one of Alice Walkerâ€™s poems â€“ â€˜now I understand that grief, emotional speaking, is the same as goldâ€¦â€™ Yes, there are special treasures to be found in our mourning and grief can be good.
I miss you Josh
Your Dad, Jimmy (July 2012)
Fiona Rodman is a psychotherapist and lives near Stroud in Gloucestershire.Â Â Â Â Â She is currently working on her next book â€“ a further exploration of contemporary practices in mourning and grief.Â Â To read â€œMourning and Transformation â€“ Sifting for Goldâ€ in full please contact Fiona directly –mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
I am particularly interested to find out how any of Fionaâ€™s ideas might resonate with your own experiences – please leave any comments in the box below
Last weekend we celebrated Josh’s 24th birthday. Â We also had the real pleasure of having the two Dutch guys who were traveling with Josh at theÂ time of his accident, come to stay. Â Â Dominique Zondervan and Don Zweedijk”s visit was a very special moment as they were the last people to spend time with Josh before he died. Â They had only known Josh for two weeks so it was also a good opportunity for them to find out more about him from all his friends here.
Joshua’s younger sister, Rosa is currently studying on a Foundation Art course at Oxford Brookes University. We are reproducing here an essay she has written as part of her course which explores the themes of photography and death and the way we use the medium as a way of creating memorials to people’s lives. In this essay Rosa posits some very challenging questions – how far, she asks, is the act of taking someone’s photograph a subconscious attempt “to protect ourselves for when that person dies?” To answer this she examines the work of Â three very different artists – the American photographer Nan Goldin who captured some of the most intimate and moving images from New York’s gay scene of the 1970’s and 80’s – London based photographer Briony Campbell’s whose “The Dad Project” was a way of saying goodbye with her camera to her father as he lay dying from cancer – and the work Â I have produced since Josh’s death, in particular my book “Released”.
I am seriously moved by Rosa’s ability and her desire to use her university projects as a way of understanding what her own work now means in the light of Joshua’s death and for being prepared to share those thoughts with us. Â Â (Jimmy)
Making it Real – Death and Photography
In my essay I will be exploring how we take photographs of loved ones with the possibly subconscious aim to memorialise that person after they have died and look at the ways in which we can turn found photos of a lost loved one into prominent memorials of their life.
How far is taking a photograph of someone a response to our fear of death? Is their fear their fear or is it ours? What power does the photograph hold? Does it comfort us in our grief and why? When images of death are all around us, why do we shy away from post-mortem images of people we have known and loved?
I will be structuring the essay around the three stages of taking images as a memorial that I have concluded from some of my research:
-Â Â Â Â Â Taking images before someone has died, when they are certainly alive and healthy yet, with the subconscious idea that the photograph will almost certainly outlive them.
-Â Â Â Â Â Taking images of someone as they physically die, a concept that is almost unheard of in our culture. I ask could this be a way of helping us prepare for their death?
-Â Â Â Â Â Finally, taking and using images of the person after they have died.
NAN GOLDIN – keeping the memory alive
For a long time the work of New York photographer, Nan Goldin has inspired and influenced my own work. She takes very personal and intimate images of her close friends. She photographs them relaxing at their houses, their drug use and abuse and during sex. Nan Goldinâ€™s body of work is often very shocking to the greater public and has frequently acted as an expose of life during the AIDS epidemic. She recorded some of the most intimate moments of herself and of her friendsâ€™ lives.
Goldin grew up in Boston,Â â€œin the very middleâ€ of a middle class neighbourhood. When Nan was 11 her older sister who was 18 committed suicide. In Goldinâ€™s documentary film, â€˜Iâ€™ll be your mirrorâ€™, she implies that her sisterâ€™s death was a catalyst not just for her photography in general but also for the intimate and personal style of her images.
After leaving college she moved to New Yorkâ€™s lower East Side where she began documenting the post â€˜stonewallâ€™ gay scene of the late seventies –â€œinstead of dying at 18, I started to photograph.â€ Goldin now acknowledges that her sisterâ€™s untimely death really shaped her photography in a very subconscious way. She reflects on her photography in the documentary commenting that she â€œbecame obsessed with never losing the memory of anyone againâ€. The irony of course was that by the 1990â€™s many of her subjects were dead either from aids or from drug overdoses. Goldinâ€™s photographs use an intimate snapshot aesthetic and read rather like a private diary made public. The images all show real moments and real people and let the viewer into her life.
Iniatially Goldin took photographs for her personal use. But doÂ portraits taken as a commission or for more public viewing Â have the same â€˜death instinctâ€™? British photographer David Bailey believes they do:Â â€œPhotography is all about death reallyâ€¦ you look at [old] pictures-theyâ€™re always dead. You donâ€™t look at a painting and think â€˜sheâ€™s deadâ€™ but you look at a photograph and think â€˜sheâ€™s dead!â€™
Do we all take photographs of the people that we love to capture them in case of death or to protect ourselves for when that â€˜subjectâ€™ dies? When you are taking an image of a loved one it transforms from just a photograph into a memory, a character and a relationship. This is the element for me, which makes the works of artists such as Goldin so significant and so beautiful.
Cookie Mueller – 1981
â€˜The Cookie Portfolioâ€™ as Goldin names it, is a series of fifteen photographs taken over thirteen years of Cookie Mueller â€“ â€œthe starlet of the Lower East Sideâ€ and the â€œqueen of the downtown social sceneâ€. The images illustrate Cookieâ€™s character and vitality yet also captures her deterioration and eventual death from AIDS in 1989.
â€œI used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. I put together this series of pictures of Cookie from the 13 years I knew her in order to keep her with me. In fact they show me how much Iâ€™ve lost.â€
â€œThe Cookie Portfolioâ€ is an excellent example of the way a photographic record of anyone can come to have such a power after they have died.
Goldinâ€™s dilemma highlights a basic contradiction in all photographic portraits especially those of people who have then died; their photograph has an incredible likeness of being to the subject, it invites us to accept consolation from their living image yet, it can also a painful reminder that they are now gone.
The last image in Goldinâ€™s Cookie Portfolio is of Cookie in her coffin. It is extraordinary that in a series of photographs intended to keep the memory of her friend alive that she would include a photograph of her corpse.
Extraordinary not just because of Goldinâ€™s fear of losing her friends â€˜livingâ€™ memory, but more because in her life and her art she is surrounded by the deaths of those close to her yet, this picture of Cookie in her coffin is one of only a very few she has published of a dead friend. Sex, drugs, deviance, yes â€“ death, no.
However, rewind to the nineteenth century and images of dead people, especially babies, were very common, socially accepted and even valued. At this time, infant mortality was very high and a lot of the time there wouldnâ€™t be enough time to make a photograph of the child before it had died. So the families would photograph the deceased openly and unfortunately this occurred often as in those days infant death was more commonplace.
While images of death as part of our daily news intake, such as the killing of Bin Laden, are quite acceptable, people who now want a post-mortem record can face social opprobrium if they were to take a picture or commission someone to do so. People on the television and in the newspapers remain characters and donâ€™t seem to be real people but people donâ€™t want to acknowledge the death of someone close to them by taking a photograph. Similarly, a lot of people live in the mindset that if we donâ€™t acknowledge death by photographing it then maybe it hasnâ€™t happened.
When my own brother Joshua died last year and I went to see his body in the funeral parlour I didnâ€™t take a photograph. It was impossible for me to do so not only because I was using all of my emotional energy to process what was happening leaving no room for the camera, also it simply isnâ€™t the done thing nowadays.
Perhaps for Goldin who lived through her camera and often shielded herself with it, taking the picture of Cookieâ€™s corpse was a necessary confirmation of her death. For me, the support of my family meant that there was no need to record his lifeless form for posterity – above all it was just too painful.
From personal experience Iâ€™ve learnt that we tend to shy away from photographs that depict images of the dead especially when the deceased Â is a loved one. Yet, it is surprising that in popular contemporary culture, there are still few acceptable ways of recording the rituals surrounding death and mourning process. When families get together it is often around important moments such as births, marriages and funerals, the latter being the event least photographed. Unlike weddings, there is no industry for funeral photography or videos. This seems strange to me, as death is the only inevitable event in someoneâ€™s life. After my brothers death, we as a family collected all the pictures of Josh that we could – a hugely important part of our efforts to come to terms with our loss; these were of course all pictures of Josh alive. Overnight, they had all become memorial photographs â€“ each snapshot acquiring more poignancyâ€¦ and over time these â€˜foundâ€™ images of Joshua have gained even more significance being used over and over again: at the funeral, parties, memorial days, and given to people as gifts. For example, the images below were both images which gained significance from their first use as his business card, now as a memento for people to put in their wallets and on their walls to remember Josh.Â Like Goldin we were using his photograph as a way of keeping Joshua alive.
Above – the photograph Josh used for his business card
This image was reproduced and given to mourners at Josh’s funeral
Images, like the ones of Josh, seem to become an icon of a personâ€™s life. On the surface we take images to represent memories and relationships but, when a tragedy happens, I have realised that maybe we take images to prematurely memorialise that character and protect ones self from the inevitable. The images grant us with satisfaction by showing an exact visual replication of that person whilst still alive but at the same time the photos will now always be a reminder that they are now not alive.
JIMMY EDMONDS – RELEASED – the photographic illusion
A few weeks later after we received his ashes back from the crematorium, my father, Jimmy Edmonds, started on a photographic project that would be both a memorial to my brother and a record of the way our family was dealing with our loss.
This project was published with the title RELEASED. Â Â It can be seen in full here. Â He started by photographing Josh’s ashes; he captured them pouring through the air and the clouds of dust that they created.
He then experimented with laying the ashes on top of the photograph shown above of Joshua that had gained significance from being used at the funeral and over and over again. When put together, the ashes and the image formed conflicting ideas: on the one hand, we can see Josh alive, with him looking back to us, placing us in an illusion letting us believe that he is still alive, but the ashes tell us that he is most definitely dead.
The thing about a photograph is that even though it captures a moment in time it will almost always outlive its subject matter. My Dad wanted to find a way of making images that more accurately reflected the long process of mourning. Again using a photograph heâ€™d taken of Josh, the one used as his business card, he hand printed them using a nineteenth century technique that used vegetable juice and sunlight – anthotypes. He then combined these bright red images with the ashes and physically stuck the two together. There is no way to fix an anthotype print – in time they will fade. Over time all that will remain will be the ashes of Josh. Nearly all photographs act as an aide-memoir and as such are deceptive. This series of images speaks more to our current reality of life without Josh.
My father was able to use the ashes as a creative material and make some beautiful images not only for the people that knew Josh but also for many people that did not know him. They felt privileged and touched that he had â€˜let them inâ€™ to such a tender and normally private part of Â our family life by witnessing Joshâ€™s actual ashes as a piece of art.
â€œAll that remains will be â€“ all that remains.â€
BRIONY CAMPBELL – saying goodbye with her camera
My father had time to think about his project – (when someone dies, it is after all forever!). When Briony Campbell’s father was diagnosed with cancer he was told that he had just nine months to live. Briony decided to document this with a series of photographs and an accompanying video called The Dad Project. Unlike Goldin’s work, this was a very much conscious process where both father and daughter collaborated. Each of them had to think carefully about what doing this project would mean for them both:
â€œI agonised for months over whether I should attempt to photograph our relationship at allâ€.
We learn from her video that for her father the project meant getting to know his daughter in new ways and spending the last of his days doing something worthwhile and productive. For Briony it was more of a way to say goodbye. She was able to use her camera as a medium to do this, but I suspect that at times it was also a way to distance herself from the reality of the situation.
â€œEach day that brought his imminent death into sharper focus, my project became more of a crutch, and more of a member of the family. When we had nothing to be positive about, the project gave us a way to be productiveâ€
For my father the photographic process he undertook was more of a reflection on my brotherâ€™s death once he had already gone. Campbellâ€™s project was of the moment and dealt with the emotions she had as her father was dying. She did not know what was going to happen next or when exactly he would die from his terminal illness:
â€œWhen you find out youâ€™re going to lose someone you love you donâ€™t know what the story is, so you really canâ€™t plan how to tell it.â€
When we think of images of a dying family member many people are likely to conjure up stereotypical images associated with death – morbid and painful images that could capture pain, suffering, fear or a variety of other negative emotions associated with death. Of course Campbellâ€™s â€˜The Dad Projectâ€™ series includes those images. But Campbell also creates a story about love. She does this by creating beautiful photographs in a hopeless situation. The video includes humorous chats with her father and I found myself smiling whilst watching it. Similarly, amongst the heartfelt, painful images are picturesque images of light and colour.
â€œIf it were a painful moment, I tried to make the picture more aesthetically beautifulâ€.
“Today we knew he would die soon. I went outside and looked at the sky while we waited for the ambulance.”
The series contains both pictures of Campbellâ€™s father as well as some self-portraits although, I would argue that the self-portraits are images of her father dying too. I think these are some of the most important images in the series as they show her bravery. To let people see you at your weakest and most vulnerable I find really incredible. In my opinion these self-portraits fuse the series together as they put the whole thing into context by showing not only the experience of the fatherâ€™s illness but also the impact the illness has on his daughter. This has the result of humanising the whole process. Death here is not a news item, but an everyday occurence.
By taking the images of her father with the conscious aim to memorialise the pictures even before he died, to then take images of herself shows a great understanding and coming to terms with death in general. By photographing herself she is essentially preparing herself for when she dies and exploring this through the images – for me, she is memorialising herself in the images using the same idea of taking a photograph to be there when you are dead.
Most of memorial photography exists of images of smiling people aiming to remember the happy times of a personâ€™s life. Campbellâ€™s work is more of a realistic representation of death and includes photographs that are undoubtedly hard to look at, though the series does also include happy and amusing images. By creating a more rounded view of death and dying, Campbell has somehow reduced the fear that many people have of death. I was able to relate to this by thinking back to the funeral we held for Josh. On the day I felt a bit strange that I wasnâ€™t sad all of the time and I felt quite at ease and cheerful at points through out the day â€“ a lot of our friends said they enjoyed the day and I wouldnâ€™t necessarily disagree.
Part of life is that everyone has to die. It is inevitable. At the very least, The Dad Project, opens a door to people and lets them in to this delicate journey.
What becomes clear is that although all three photographers are responding to their encounter with death in very different ways, they are all using photography as a way of coming to terms with loss. For Goldin, photographing her friends is a kind of insurance policy, creating mementos for when they are no longer here. Campbell documents the journey into death in a truly collaborative way and my father is trying to produce new images from my brothers actual remains. And by confronting death and making it real they all go some way to dispelling our fears.
Rosa Harris Edmonds
Keep up to date with what I am doing at university and in my personal projectsÂ here and here.
Briony’s film, ‘Saying goodbye with my camera’ can Â be seen here.
Briony’s photographs of ‘The Dad Project’ can be seen here.