It’s a new year and I’m back at Nihilsentimentalgia with the usual suspects: photography and death. No surprises there. My oldest dog, Ghost, died last week. To be fair, I killed him. As I made the choice I thought I’d have to assist him in his last breath. That decision led to the creation of images that are traumatic and need to be resolved. As I mourn his disappearance and struggle with the memory of him, photography proves once again to be extremely helpful: a true therapeutic tool.
Although I’m doing this for the sake of the therapeutic aspect and none else, some authors have been working on giving a public dimension to this practice. Throughout the years, I’ve done posts about some of them.
British photographer Rankin, confronted with the death of his parents, decided to do a series of portraits of people forced to engage with their own death. He hoped to (somehow) work through his own grief while listening to their stories. A documentary about his project – Alive: In the Face of Death can be seen below.
Photographer Colin Gray also struggled with the passing of his mother in 2004. He had started photographing what happened to her after a stroke in 2000 and kept looking at the way his father cared for her. That work was finally published by Steidl: In Sickness and in Health. Is is highly symbolic.
Colin Gray about doing this work: It was very difficult, but photography really helped make sense of what was happening to my mother. I find taking pictures detaches me so I can look at a situation objectively. The process of taking a picture held me together, so I wasn’t breaking down. As time went on the pictures evolved into a body of work, then I looked at how to construct a narrative from all the images I had.
One can’t really count on logic when trying to work through these events. I know I can’t. Ghost was no longer living a good life, but I keep forgetting what the last year was like and I keep forgetting his struggles and replacing the memory of his suffering with joyful moments. It’s a risky move. Those memories clash with the images formed out of the last moments with him: a body struggling to die as much as he had struggled to stay alive.
I went back to my archives to see photos of him and several things resulted from that “simple” act. For example, I was reminded of how he was decaying. How strong he once was and how fragile he had become; his body was weakening and his brain wandering. The differences between his photographs from the past year or so and those before that period are enlightening. As I understood my mind would play tricks on me and pull me back to the point where I’d forget why I decided to kill him, I made a selection of photographs I could go back to, in case I needed reminding. Today was one of those days and it does help.
I don’t think I ever photograph moments that might haunt me, but I’m actually starting to consider this. Images that are traumatic do linger on in our minds. As time goes by and our brain plays tricks on us, it’s likely that the original image gets transformed into something else. Probably softer; probably more dramatic. Who knows? What would happen if instead of relying on that image, I’d manage to look at a photograph instead? Maybe if I photograph those moments they become more real (raw and emotional at once); maybe seeing them through the lens can transform them into something that immediately implicates me and my relation to the subject. Maybe…