The scholar Phillipe Aries writes that before the 19th century, death was given a special place in our society. Mourners were set apart, given time to grieve and were supported by large networks. With the increasing privatization of religion in the Western world, death exited the public sphere and entered the private. In the 20th century, death was confined to our intimate and inner thoughts and public expressions of grief could only be mediated by public institutions(think of war monuments).
However this is once again shifting today. We are witnessing a rise in death consciousness in the West with blogs, memorialization websites and death cafe‘s. Photography as a medium of self-reflection and of cultural trends is but another example of our slow openness to the topic of death. With all this in mind, we present to you the best photo documentaries and essays on the topic of death and dying:
The Best Photo Documentaries On Death
1 – Ritual
There is a certain connectivity amongst Westerners over the ways in which we mourn the dead. Something, dare we say, universal about it all. Between 1996 and 1998, photographers Bastienne Schmidt and her husband, Philippe Cheng traveled all around America trying to capture the connectivity in these public moments of death and grief. What they discovered is hauntingly beautiful and indicative of our collective agency as humans and the rituals we choose to remember the dead by.
2 – The Wedding Shoot
Unlike some of the photo documentaries in our collection, this touching tribute is less about death and more about celebrating life and letting go. Janine’s fiancee died 2 months before they were due to be married. As a way of dealing with her grief, Janine chose to hold on to her wedding dress. However, far from resigning herself to her sadness, Janine decided to organize the wedding photoshoot of her dreams, in honour of her fiancee. She contacted a group of photographers, flew to the Riviera Maya and created an incredibly cathartic and emotional experience for everyone involved.
3 – Before & After
It may speak to how ubiquitous the camera is today but it always amazes us to see how much access photographers are able to get. In this intimate series of portraits, photographer Walter Schels was able to capture palliative care patients before and immediately following their death. The photographs are coupled with interviews from the subjects and work to not only humanize the experience of dying but work to open the door to a compassionate conversation about the right to die.
4 – Capturing Cancer
As with our comments above, we are always touched by the willingness of people to be photographed, especially during the worst moments of their lives. When Angelo Merendino found out his wife Jennifer was diagnosed with Cancer he immediately took out his camera and lovingly captured every moment until the cancer sadly took Jennifer’s life. The results speak to the human face of cancer, a disease that seems to have just become ‘another word’ these days. The photographs will make you sad, make you smile and wrap you in a blanket of feeling.
6 – Killer Meals
Probably the weirdest of the collections in this post. Photographer Henry Hargreaves in his series No Seconds, set out to re-create the last meal of infamous death row prisoners. The results are stark, odd and humanizing. In the case of John Wayne Gacy, it is downright creepy. Hargreaves was inspired to shoot this project after hearing talk of Texas banning the practice of final meals for death row inmates. The stark images are obviously recreations but one can easily imagine a prisoner sitting down in their cell for a lobster meal or taking their time, slowly chewing on the last olive they’ll ever eat.
7 – The Morgue
With death comes the hidden world between physical loss and public display. We don’t see the morgue, we don’t see the dark places bodies go for examination or preparation. What Cathrine Ertmann hoped to expose us to this reality and to make us understand the processes involved in our decay and those whose job it is to work with our bodies. The aim is to show the universality of what goes unnoticed and unseen in our society. The photographs are stark and at times disturbing but there is beauty in breaking the taboo of death.
8 – NSFW
If the idea of dead bodies makes you uncomfortable, this will not be for you. Which btw, is pretty much the point of this essay! We have grown so distant from death that the sight of a dead body, even through our computer screens, makes us uncomfortable. When Kimmo Metsaranta’s grandfather passed away in 2014, she made sure she was present during every moment past death; dressing her grandfather and preparing him for the funeral. Quoting Metsaranta on why she photographed the process: “Looking at the pictures now takes me back to the moment of seeing him in the coffin. In the pictures he seems to be at ease. And there still is that sense of presence. In some way I feel a lot closer to him now than I ever did before.”