post-mortem photography

EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY

The following is our report on a photography workshop Jane and I ran at the TCF National Gathering earlier this year – apologies if this appears a little late but life work and other things do tend sometimes to take over from our tasks of keeping you informed of all the things that have happened since Josh died.    In any case time for us doesn’t really feel like a series of moments that gradually disappear into the ether,  or off the bottom of a blogroll, so we hope that this account will be as relevant to you in a years time as it does now.

exploring grief with photography(10cm)

Saturday 11th October  2014 …   it’s the annual Gathering of The Compassionate Friends and Jane and I have an opportunity to share our joint skills in photography and therapy.  We are running a photography workshop for bereaved parents and siblings – EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY.    Our two disciplines seem to gell together seemlessly and the first part of the course is going well – the participants have split into groups and and are sharing the photos they have brought along.   We have a good turnout – two 90 minute sessions both completely full – most with very little practical experience of making photographs but all with a huge amount of stories and memories to share.   The room is buzzing with emotion.   Both therapy and photography are ways in which to seek beyond the surface layers and discover hidden emotions.    And while photography can have a more tangible result they are both very much processes in which everyday realities can be tested and revealed anew.  At least this was the approach we hoped to explore in the new photography course we have devised and for which this is its first outing.

The Compassionate Friends is a charity we have now become quite closely involved in and attached to. TCF is important to us, not just because of the video we produced for them (SAY THEIR NAMEbut because it truly is a peer to peer network run by and for bereaved parents.   Not only do we share our grief (it makes life so much easier when we do) we can also share our skills and for us this represented a very special opportunity to contribute something of our own to a community that had, I suspect, not given much thought to the potential of photography as a therapeutic tool, especially for the bereaved.

So how do we and how can we use photographs to help us as we grieve?       Both the photos that we already have of our child and the ones we intend still to take.    We asked everyone who signed up to the sessions to bring along at least three photos of their child, pictures that have a particular resonance or evoke a special memory.   Further into the session we will be asking them to choose just the one picture in order to ‘reframe’ it in a way that will bring it more into the present.   Our purpose here is to experiment with ways in which we can keeping an on going relationship with our child by employing one of memory’s most valuable assistants – the photographic image.

In preparing the course, I began by looking for some good examples of what others had done in this area.  As Josh’s sister Rosa has pointed out in her article (Making it Real – Death and Photography)  every photo we take will outlive its subject and as such has enormous potential to transcend  that final moment between life and death, a fact well recognised by artists and photographers ever since the medium was discovered 200 years ago.   But by  googling  a combinations of various words; GRIEF, PHOTOGRAPHY, DEATH, BEREAVEMENT etc, I found little that spoke to my own experience of life since Josh died.      Beautiful photographs as they are, mostly they seem to fall into high art or reportage, neither of which seem to be of much use to anyone looking to express their own very personal feelings in the days months and years following the death of a child.

Nico Nordström
photo credit Nico Nordström 2010
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Dmitri Baltermants – Crimea 1942
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Dan Chung – China 2008

Typical would be this photo of grieving parents following an earthquake in China.   Although as a press photo it has the potential for a sort of anonymous association for the viewer (we can feel their pain)  it does little, I suspect, to help the mum and dad who have just lost their daughter.  Why?  Well I think its because they haven’t been involved in the real work of taking the photograph.  Did they know the photograph was being taken or did they pose suitably grief stricken in the rubble, their daughters image conveniently arranged so that the world can see her in full view.  Whichever,  this is an image of tragedy for public consumption and feeds a very common place idea of what grief should look like but, buried as it is in the historicity of the moment it can never convey what grief really feels like as one of life’s longest lasting experiences.

A little closer to home (in the sense of a personalised photography) I found this remarkable website NILMDTS – Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep – a sort of photo agency that will record for you a moment with your child who has died at birth.    This is a free professional service and is in the tradition of post-mortem very popular in the States at the  end of the 19th century, a time when child death in the family was commonplace, though we can assume no less traumatising..

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19th century post-mortem photograph
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Victorian post-mortem photograph
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now i lay myself down to sleep – 21st century

Now as then these  photographs carry a huge emotional charge both for the bereaved families and for us strangers looking on.  Unlike a press photograph and in common with all portraits they have demanded the active participation of the sitters.   Mother has taken her dead baby in her arms and posed specifically for the camera.   She is performing a drama with the shortest of stories but one which will have lasting impact and as such has the potential for huge therapeutic effect.  The moment is both real physically and emotionally and she is in effect taking the first step in a life’s work of continuing her bond with her child.  This is a lasting image that has captured a hugely significant moment and one in which she can return to time and  again as she remembers and try to construct what (or who) might have been.  But again, as artefact, these post-mortem pictures are and can only be,  locked into the past, even while they generate very current as well as very healing memories and emotions.

It was with these thoughts in mind, that we began our workshops  with an invitation to explore  ways in which we can use photography to generate a continually evolving set of stories and impressions following the death our child.  We had each of us brought favorite photos and were now explaining the  stories behind them and the memories they evoked. In the small groups we had formed words spilled out and across the room in a veritable hubbub, a cacophony even of voices all (and I think this is the really interesting bit) trying to describe their feelings, all trying to convey their emotions.   But at the same time the mere act of vocalising our thoughts, of telling the narrative seem to get in the way of really connecting with these photos and the child within.  In a sense words were failing us.

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photo workshop – the telling

At this point then we asked people to remain in groups but to sit quietly and merely observe their images, together and in silence.  In the hush that followed Jane used her ‘mindfulness’ techniques, encouraging us to stay in the moment however difficult the feelings, to try and lose a sense of time and to find a connection with our child that is now and something more than just memory. It was extraordinary, as the words disappeared and the emotions took over, hands felt for another to hold, an arm went around another’s shoulder,  tears began to form and frankly, I was stunned.

Photographs of course are always memories – they are always of the past; of something that has already happened.  You cannot take a photo of the future.  But while they are always of the past, they are also always in the present. And like memory their meaning or the meaning they have for us, can evolve with time, sometimes radically and overnight.  We recognised this in the photos we had brought of our children … innocent snapshots that have now become overloaded with longing and painful fantasies of what might have been.    In my book RELEASED I wrote about how an image of Josh taken as part of a series of portraits of people with their eyes closed, had now attained a kind of iconic status in the way in which we remember him – and the way in which we ‘reinvent’ him in a continually shifting process of trying to find meaning in our lives and in his death. Personally, I have found much comfort in being able to re-photograph Josh’s  image – it has taken me from the raw pain of remembering too much to a newer sense of a continued relationship with him.   No longer here and forever dead, Josh still remains a huge presence in my creative endeavour and very much part of my life.

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Josh’s business card
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winter’s evening

So there are two aspects to this business of exploring grief with photography. There are the photos we already have of our child who is now dead.  Photos that were taken in all innocence of what the future might bring, now portals to our memories holding us close to a life that once was, both ours and theirs.  And there the images that we can now make – post tragedy – of the lives we now inhabit, both ours and theirs (do they not live on within us?).

For the second part of our workshop people divided into pairs and together attempted to create a photograph that reflected some of these concerns.   In a way what we were trying to do is to weld together the past and the present – the past with all its longings and the present full of our current desires – and in so doing rebuild our sense of a future.  As all bereaved parents will know, when your child dies, you are immediately thrown into a world in which the future has very little meaning.  But in this act of re photographing our child’s image we began to see some real therapeutic possibilities in the way we can continue our relationship with her/him with less pain.  With the photographs we now made we could forgo the ‘what if’s’ in favour of the ‘might be’s’.   We might even imagine a time when we can look upon their face and smile again and know there are more photos to come many of which we haven’t even dreamed about – yet.

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photo workshop – the making
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photo workshop – the showing

24 people attended our workshops and you can see some of the resulting photographs by clicking on the image below.   Some of the photos remain private so we are only publishing those for which we have permission.

EXPLORE THE RESULTS

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CLICK ON THE IMAGE

Some of the thoughts and feedback about the sessions …

“inspirational – I have been so sad that we have no new photographs of (our child) and now I feel I can put all our pictures into a new context”

” …painful, powerful, beautiful meaningful and extremely well run.   A perfect combination of professionalism, creativity and empathy”

“looking at my picture of (my child) was so hard … I have always thought I was so totally rubbish at photography and not really interested in it but it has inspired me to do more in the future”

“but maybe the tears are necessary and maybe they feed the creative process ..”

“You have shown us a beautiful & really unique way  to remember our very precious children ….. I thought I would get very upset seeing (my child) on the screen …. but in fact because it was so special, it was actually comforting”

“such a beautiful way to continue our bonds and to make new ‘memories’ with (my child).   Jane and Jimmy, you handled our feelings so sensitively and I feel uplifted”

Jane and I feel very encouraged by this and will be offering a more developed version of EXPLORING GRIEF WITH PHOTOGRAPHY in the future.   In the TCF workshops we were concentrating on re-photographing an already existing image but there so many more ways of photographing our grief.   We also realise that for some  the image of their child still holds too many painful reminders or that they might want to focus on a more abstract sense of their grief.   Grief afterall is such a complex range of emotions that finding words to describe them often seems to result in cliche or just very ordinary and nothing like what we are truly experiencing.

And this is where making new photographs can help to play a part. We can learn to express our thoughts and feelings in a language that is not so literally tied-bound.  By finding the visual metaphors that are in a way unique to us and that express our grief, ours and ours alone, we can interpret our feelings and our experiences  in our own way.  In a way this is our route to honesty, something others are bound to recognise.    We may also find that despite the very solidity of a photograph (this did actually happen – this person did actually exist) the language of photography is very fluid, that photos in themselves hold no particular meaning outside of the way they are viewed. But isn’t that a bit like grief anyway – a constant slipping and sliding of feelings and emotions around a central fact – our child has died.

Thanks for reading

Jimmy

December 2014

If you want to know more about our work or would like us to create a course for you please use the CONTACT FORM on this website

Look out for my next photographic series

Another Place Beyond Time – coming soon

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LINKS

The Compassionate Friends – WEBSITE

Now I Lay Myself Down to Sleep – NILMDTS

Continuing Bonds – on BEYOND GOODBYE

Rosa’s essay – Making it Real – Death and Photography

Jimmy’s book – RELEASED

Making it Real – Death and Photography … by Rosa

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  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  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.    (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:

–      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.

–      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?

–      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 Goldin’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 friends’ lives.

Goldin grew up in Boston, “in the very middle” of a middle class neighbourhood. When Nan was 11 her older sister who was 18 committed suicide. In Goldin’s documentary film, ‘I’ll be your mirror’, she implies that her sister’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 York’s lower East Side where she began documenting the post ‘stonewall’ gay scene of the late seventies –“instead of dying at 18, I started to photograph.” Goldin now acknowledges that her sister’s untimely death really shaped her photography in a very subconscious way. She reflects on her photography in the documentary commenting that she “became obsessed with never losing the memory of anyone again”. The irony of course was that by the 1990’s many of her subjects were dead either from aids or from drug overdoses. Goldin’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 do portraits taken as a commission or for more public viewing  have the same ‘death instinct’? British photographer David Bailey believes they do: “Photography is all about death really… you look at [old] pictures-they’re always dead. You don’t look at a painting and think ‘she’s dead’ but you look at a photograph and think ‘she’s dead!’

 

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 ‘subject’ 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

‘The Cookie Portfolio’ as Goldin names it, is a series of fifteen photographs taken over thirteen years of Cookie Mueller – “the starlet of the Lower East Side” and the “queen of the downtown social scene”. The images illustrate Cookie’s character and vitality yet also captures her deterioration and eventual death from AIDS in 1989.

“I 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 I’ve lost.”


“The Cookie Portfolio” is an excellent example of the way a photographic record of anyone can come to have such a power after they have died.

Goldin’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 Goldin’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 Goldin’s fear of losing her friends ‘living’ 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 – 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 wouldn’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 don’t seem to be real people but people don’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 don’t acknowledge death by photographing it then maybe it hasn’t happened.

When my own brother Joshua died last year and I went to see his body in the funeral parlour I didn’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 isn’t the done thing nowadays.

Perhaps for Goldin who lived through her camera and often shielded herself with it, taking the picture of Cookie’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 I’ve learnt that we tend to shy away from photographs that depict images of the dead especially when the deceased  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 someone’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 – each snapshot acquiring more poignancy… and over time these ‘found’ 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. 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 person’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.

RELEASED - ash clouds §6

This project was published with the title RELEASED.    It can be seen in full here.  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 he’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 ‘let them in’ to such a tender and normally private part of  our family life by witnessing Josh’s actual ashes as a piece of art.

“All that remains will be – all that remains.”

 

 

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:

“I agonised for months over whether I should attempt to photograph our relationship at all”.



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.

“Each 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 productive”

For my father the photographic process he undertook was more of a reflection on my brother’s death once he had already gone. Campbell’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:

“When you find out you’re going to lose someone you love you don’t know what the story is, so you really can’t plan how to tell it.”

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 Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project’ 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.

“If it were a painful moment, I tried to make the picture more aesthetically beautiful”.

“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 Campbell’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 father’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 person’s life. Campbell’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 wasn’t sad all of the time and I felt quite at ease and cheerful at points through out the day – a lot of our friends said they enjoyed the day and I wouldn’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

April 2012

 

Links

Keep up to date with what I am doing at university and in my personal projects here and here.

Briony’s film, ‘Saying goodbye with my camera’ can  be seen here.

Briony’s photographs of ‘The Dad Project’ can be seen here.

Jimmy’s ‘Released’ photographs can be seen here.