FROM POSTMORTEM PHOTOGRAPHY TO CYBERETHERNITY
The function of photography as a reference of reality and a prosthesis of memory has led to the early appearance of the so-called Post-Mortem photography, certifying its usefulness as a tool for managing grief and perpetuating the memory of loved ones. However, the evolution of the social context over the last two centuries and the digital revolution have helped to rethink photography’s relationship with the processes of death and grief.
If in the first post-mortem photographs the visual representation of death was closely linked to its rituals and social staging, nowadays its representation is almost exclusively inserted in the artistic or documentary discourse -including in this spectrum self-referential projects of illness, vindication of socially stigmatized groups, professional mourning therapies or forensic documentation; Absent in the social sphere, the representation of death is not so much the confirmation of the failure of “Homo Interneticus”, as the redefinition of the search for a hope of eternity in a virtual Afterlife.
History: post-mortem photography
The first “Post-Mortem” photographs appeared shortly after the invention of photography in 1839, as a continuation of a pictorial tradition dating back to the 15th century. Although from a contemporary perspective these early images may seem morbid to us, it must be considered that until the early 20th century – due to a shorter life expectancy, a high infant mortality rate and the ritualization of funeral wakes in one’s own home – death and mourning were experienced in a closer and more intimate way. These photographs were exchanged quite naturally, forming part of the family album and occupying a privileged place in the domestic sphere. The religious practices of the time conditioned the attitude towards death and its iconographic representation: concepts such as the “Good Death”, the “Eternal Rest” or the “Little Angels” were transcribed photographically in scenes that transmitted serenity and without a doubt a certain spiritual tranquillity and whose usefulness glosses Michel Melot:
“The image as a substitute for the absent body and its vision as an effective means for the living to recover the memory of the deceased. This psychological and transcendental tool gives meaning to the living when accepting death, recognizing it and overcoming it” (Melot, 2010).
For this reason, these first manifestations are limited to the private sphere and seek to dignify the subjects and the visual register of their figure – perhaps the only one in many cases – as a support for mourning and memory. The repertoire of locations, poses and symbolism used in these early photographs helped to de-dramatise the scene and achieve a calming and healing effect.
There is evidence of what could be called the first stage of postmortem photography in the abundant material recovered by institutions and private collectors. With an archive of over a million historical photographs, the Burns Archive has an important section devoted to the mortuary genre. In Spain there are photographic archives in public custody (town halls, museums, foundations) and private collections in which the material of an endless number of local photographers is preserved and among whose content it is possible to trace images of the deceased.
The tipping point
Although the reasons are more of a socio-cultural nature, there is an inverse relationship between the evolution of the photographic medium and the extension of the genre: if the specialisation of photographic practice in the nineteenth century made posthumous portraiture available to a few, the popularisation of photography in the early twentieth century and the increase in the number of amateurs did not, however, leave any evidence of a proportional record in domestic postmortem photography, where the entire commercial/industrial framework of photographic processing would leave scenes of family intimacy exposed to foreign gazes. Currently, the universal availability of photographic devices, as well as their ubiquity in each of the situations of daily life, invite us to assume an increase in digital postmortem photography, but the fact that it is considered socially inadequate, as well as the scarce presence of this type of photography in social networks, suggest that both the capture and its dissemination are restricted to the sphere of the most strict intimacy.
From the middle of the 20th century, for Western societies, death became an uncomfortable presence: turned into an invisible and solitary phenomenon, modern death is an “abdication of the community” (Ariés, 1989) in favour of companies and professionals specialised in managing the whole process: illness, death and final disposal of the corpse in installations built on the outskirts of cities. According to Linkman, the dissolution of Christian beliefs, an increase in social mobility and changes in the family structure have led to these processes of externalisation of death outside the home. The body-centric narrative of the “Afterlife” and the metaphor of the “Eternal Rest” that dominated the previous funeral ritual is replaced by the pragmatic objectivity of cremation and the facto-centric celebration of the life of the deceased. In this context, post-mortem commercial photography disappears and at the domestic level, although it may be emotionally justified, it is a socially reprehensible practice that the mourner will perform “on his own, in solitude and without the knowledge or permission of others” (Ennis, 2011), hide from the public eye and treasure in the intimate silence of the family album, as illustrated by the photograph that follows: taken with a smartphone and whose author has preferred to remain anonymous.
In 1969, the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published “On Death and Dying”, a fundamental book where she reflects on death and its processes, which will inspire the transformation in the clinical practice of the treatment of terminal diseases and the current system of hospices and geriatrics. The influence of this reforming trend will favour the emergence of photographic projects on terminal or degenerative diseases that seek not only to “make the disease visible and demand all the care and help they need”, but also to “turn [such projects] into scenarios or spaces for relationships” (Prado, 2014). According to Prado, each one of these self-referential projects, from the visual strategies specific to each illness, constitutes an anticipated duel in which it is intended:
“a progressive recognition of the inevitability of death, the experimentation and manifestation of the impact of anticipated loss, reconciliation, detachment and memorialization in which develops a mental representation that will remain beyond death” (Prado, 2014).
Death and the gaze
In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic shook the morale of Western society, from initial bewilderment and perplexity to the most furious stigmatization of homosexual collectives, accusing them of what Roy Greenslade, assistant editor of the Sun newspaper, called the “Gay Plague. Disease and death provoked a creative response from the gay community against discrimination and prejudice; men and women raising their voices to alert citizens’ consciences and shake health authorities from inaction. Out of the private realm, illness and death were shown in images that offered “a visual testimony of their struggle” (Prado, 2016). Thus, for example, Therese Frare’s photograph is iconic – and controversially famous for its use in a Benetton advertising campaign – showing the final agony of David Kirby surrounded by his family: a scene of a great dramatic charge, inviting the viewer to look out at the very moment that precedes death, to recognise the father’s inconsolable suffering and to empathise with his pain in what Marianne Hisrch calls “affiliative gaze”:
“The work of reading isolated images necessarily becomes a work of overreading, determined by the particular familial or extrafamilial relation we hold to them. Recognizing an image as familiar elicits, as I have argued, a specific kind of readerly or spectatorial look, an affiliative look through which we are sutured into the image and through which we adopt the image into our own familial narrative.” (Hirsch, 2012)
In the case of Felix Partz’s photograph, taken a few hours after his death in June 1994, we find an image in which the affiliative gaze is replaced by an inquisitive gaze, that of a spectator who seeks answers through a contradictory scene: Surrounded by colorful cushions and quilts, Partz’s body seems to be part of a Klimt’s painting, camouflaged among the whimsical forms of the tissues that barely disguise the ravages of disease and the horror of death. Partz’s gaze, trapped in its last instant of death, is presented to the viewer as an unanswered question. The function of this photograph seems to go beyond memory or posthumous homage, and insert itself into a performative discourse, continuity of the semi-fictitious narrative that fed the artistic avant-garde of the late 1980s. In this sense, the photograph -taken by AA Bronson of his friend and colleague in the General Idea artistic group- has a declarative character; each one of its ambiguities challenges us to debate our own mortality from a more universal perspective. Here postmortem photography is not so much documentary or personal, but adopts the strategy of art, abandoning the realm of the particular to propose a new context of legibility:
“The artist is governed by a will to discourse, by the awareness of a critical project, by conceptual and ideological strategies of the project itself, by the contexts of legibility…” (Fontcuberta, 2018)
If in AIDS, the vision of the body devastated by the disease acquires a “symbolic and representational” value (Martin, 2010) that will be used as a convincing argument in activism against prejudice, ignorance and stigma, endowing the subject with the dignity of a fallen hero, in degenerative diseases death will be represented by absence, a metaphor for the slow and prolonged fading with which life is finally extinguished: “In this way, without drama or crudity, a predictable ending is explained that does not focus its attention on the body of the deceased but on the homage to his memory” (Prado, 2014).
This concept is illustrated in the photographic diary where Phillip Toledano recorded the progressive decline of his father for four years; colour images that represent scenes of the relationship between father and son, where even when the disease is present, it does not take the protagonism of the story. There is a serene tone throughout the narrative, peppered with eventual notes of humor, which is resolved in a “post-mortem portrait” with the body of the deceased absent, corollary to a widely anticipated duel and metaphor of the emptiness that death will leave in the caretaker.
In an essay on the function of the family album in mourning processes, Montse Mocarte argues that in its modern version it has ceased to be “primarily an object containing memory, proclaiming itself to a large extent as a communicator and reassurer of lived experience” (Mocarte, 2019). Exiled from the happy pages of the traditional family album, the images of illness and death have found in the online version of the album a new vehicle of expression to integrate these experiences into a broader narrative, where the focus of death is beyond that unique event that marks the point of reference between presence and absence. Forgetting will no longer be the purpose of mourning and its stages, absence is incorporated into the story to define a new status in the relationship of the mourner with the deceased.
Documenting the process of her father’s illness and death (2009), British photographer Briony Campbell instinctively positions herself against the paradox of isolating herself in the privacy of pain, or on the contrary, constructing a space of expression using photography and video to document the father’s last existential experience, reaffirming and extending the emotional bond between them beyond the temporal and spatial limits that conventional mourning would impose. The mutual intention to forge and maintain an enduring bond is manifested in the father’s consent to participate in the project and in the author’s own incorporation into the visual story; the final image in which the daughter’s hand holds the hand of the deceased father, as well as testifying to the will to preserve an enduring bond, is a visual metaphor that illustrates a double transition: on the one hand, the peaceful instant of transition between life and death – where the deceased will be the tragic protagonist – and on the other, the prolonged and painful transition that the mourners will go through, between death and absence.
The contemplation of this transition between life and death can produce in the spectator “an ambivalent reaction of aversion and pulsion” (Morcate, 2019); we approach the very edge of the precipice interpellated by the curiosity to glimpse into its depth, at the same time as the very idea of our own fall paralyzes us. That same temporary and premonitory paradox that Barthes discovered contemplating the portrait of Lewis Payne, photographed in his cell a few hours before being executed in 1865: “he is dead, but he is going to die” is the temporal punctum that stings us when we stand before a portrait in life of the one we know will die shortly afterwards. Past and future in the same photograph: “the image is charged with meaning and contingency by being taken in the antechamber of death” (Morcarte, 2019) and the spectator explores the subject’s gaze trying to glimpse signs of that fear or hope before the imminence of what perhaps the condemned already knew inevitable.
In the work “Life Before Death” (2003), the German photographer Walter Schels (1936) places us in front of this situation with his series of 24 double portraits of 24 other subjects, terminally ill: the first taken days or weeks before his death and the second hours after his death. Conceived by the author with the intention of conjure up his own fears of death, the project was developed in German hospices with the voluntary collaboration of terminal patients, who found in Schels and his collaborator Beate Lakotta (1965) -author of the texts that accompany the photographs in the book- those who listened to their fears and hopes before the imminent. Confronting the gaze of each of these pre-mortem portraits and reading the testimony of each dying person speaking of their loneliness and the obstinate refusal of family and friends to face the gripping reality is more shocking than the individual’s own post-mortem portrait – sleeping serenely in the black shadows. The sharp gaze of the living person definitely unbalances the diptych and seems to question the spectator, whose memory will be nailed like a thorn in the side of the evidence that the transit to the shadows will have to be done in the most absolute solitude. Each of these diptychs is the materialization of what Barthes called a catastrophe.
However, in the series of portraits of strangers in the morgue by authors such as Jeffrey Silverthorne (Morgue Work, 1972), Andrés Serrano (The Morgue, 1992) or Sue Fox (Untitled, 1996) the question of the referent is banal and the body without memory becomes an impersonal space for artistic expression and death in a legitimate matter for a new aesthetic discourse far removed from the social and personal function that marked the previous practice of the genre. Freed from the restrictions of dignity and decorum imposed by the taboo (and ritual), death becomes present in art galleries by adopting visualization strategies typical of the police record or the forensic archive, showing a more sordid view of death.
Serrano conjures violence and death in his series intentionally excluding any possibility of identification of subjects and using the objectified body as a scenario of confrontation: fragments of bodies beaten, burned or poisoned, carefully illuminated to produce a set of formal and aesthetic coherence, with which the author composes scenes in which he uses elements of Catholic iconography – cuts in hands and feet that resemble stigmas, sheets like shrouds or a risky escorzo reminiscent of Mantegna’s Christ – and which represent a significant change of register in the function of postmortem photography: the provoked gaze.
As Tony Walter argues, “sooner or later, most of the dead need to be forgotten, so that a few can be remembered” (Walter, 2019), in highly functional societies it is paramount to reduce this time to a minimum in order to maintain a high standard of operability. Although the dematerialization of photography and the virtualization of the archive do not allow us to precisely quantify the use of postmortem photography at present within the vernacular realm – raising, moreover, reasonable doubts about the survival of this supposed “visual” legacy for the future -, the contemporary attitude towards death may be related to the idea of operative failure that dying implies for modern man, which would justify the invisibility and secrecy of its explicit representation in the public domain.
The growing presence of social networks in today’s life forces us to think about how death and mourning are present in these environments. If physical death is socialized in functional terms such as “disappearance” or “absence” and, consequently, without representation, its virtual equivalent is translated by the algorithm that drives these platforms, penalizing the absence of user activity to a non-presence in the “infinite scroll” in which they show their content, and that in the end will simulate oblivion. The current response of the main social networks pivots between maintaining the user’s digital legacy and its elimination: Facebook has a commemorative mode in which, in addition to showing “In Memory” next to the user’s photo, some functionalities such as suggestions of friendship are restricted; Instagram offers a similar functionality, but “prevents references to commemorative accounts that may sadden friends and family from appearing in Instagram”; and Twitter will delete the account and its content 30 days after the notification of the user’s death. However, the emergence of new platforms specializing in digital mourning such as Alife.com, will eventually allow family and friends to decorate that “white area on the social map” (Klastrup, 2014) that the death of every individual leaves, by creating a virtual space for the commemoration and publication of photographs, texts, videos or music related to the life and work of the deceased.
On the other hand, conventional social networks have helped to create a digital identity of the individual which, exhibited and modelled in the arena of virtual relationships over a considerable period of time in his life, constitutes a valuable asset for Homo Interneticus. The industry seems to have glimpsed a potential market, not only in preserving this digital legacy of the user, but in offering the user the possibility of maintaining his “activity” in the networks after his death. This is the promise of platforms such as HereAfter.ai, Eterni.me or Eter9.com; using AI algorithms they analyze the publications and user interactions on the network, to create a replicant that will keep the user “alive” for “all eternity”.
“ETER9 is a social network that relies on Artificial Intelligence as a central element, and it’s currently in the BETA stage. Even in your absence, the virtual beings will publish, comment and interact with you intelligently. The Counterpart is your Virtual Self that will stay in the system and interact with the world just like you would if you were present. Your Counterpart will learn more with each action you take. The more you interact in the new social network, the more your Counterpart will learn! Eternizing is a way of keeping your thoughts and posts for all time.”
While it is tempting to think that the concept of virtual eternity could be the materialization of a utopian fantasy and the result of the social evolution of death, it is interesting to note a parallel between the intention of the Victorians to represent the dead as living and the AI’s claim to simulate the behavior or voice of a deceased user. In both cases, they activate psychological processes to manage grief and preserve memory: the photographic image or the avatar mediates the relationship between the deceased and the mourner, a kind of icon “whose legacy will run parallel to the transmission of the story that supports it: once it is gone, the memory will dissolve into the void” (Fontcuberta, 2017).
“Irremediably extinguished the referent, photography becomes a replacement and sublimation of the disappeared individual, converted into a continent-metonymic of the deceased and therefore into a sort of fetish-object” (Cruz Lichet, 2005).
If we consider eternity as the philosophical antidote that has allowed man to overcome the fatality of his destiny and the different religions to negotiate with him, it will not be problematic to consider the concept of cyber-eternity as an acceptable substitute in this new context and technological companies as mediators between the user and the promise of a virtual Afterlife.
As we have seen, the explicit representation of death from the 19th century to the present day is linked to the evolution of the social and cultural context -including in this last category, the technological solutions and innovations that allow its dissemination and conservation. Its gradual disappearance from the social sphere has given way to mediated public representation:
In a similar vein, Goldberg (1998) argues that representations of death have always been part of the media, but with the disappearance of real death in real life (fewer people dying from vaccines, no public executions, no longer the dead in the home, etc.), the media have filled this “void” by increasing their focus and descriptions of death as news and entertainment. (Klastrup, 2015)
It is necessary, therefore, to transfer and update the debate on death and its representation, not to be fooled by fictional narratives or ritual veils under which death is disguised in every age, to separate content from form and function, and to confront our gaze with the ultimate truth of existence.
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