Assignment 5: Your Inspiration
Look back at the themes we’ve examined relating to place and our presence within it. What areas inspired you most?
The culmination of this course is a self-directed assignment where you have free rein to choose a subject that relates to any of the material discussed in the course. You may have gathered skills and insights through the projects that you want to revisit or you may have been inspired by other ideas.
The only stipulation is that the final outcome must represent a notion of identity and place that you are personally inspired by. Make sure that your work is visually consistent, relevant to the subject matter you choose and holds together well as a set, both visually and conceptually.
Background & Research
I first tackled the topic of death and remembrance in the course ‘Express Your Vision’. I decided to revisit it for this assignment and explore the intersection of identity and place in graves and graveyards, exploring the physical, cultural, and psychological spaces they inhabit.
As part of my research, Dr Ariadne Xenou ( PhD in photography and the visual culture of death.) kindly spared me some time to discuss the visual culture of death and various related topics. The works of Stephen Shore, Paul Seawright, and Gideon Mendel inspired and deepened my thinking about aspects and approaches to identity and place. For example, in Shore’s series ‘Uncommon Places’, banal places like parking lots and street scenes have stories to tell, images that on repeat viewing reveal narratives about place and identity. Similarly in Mandel’s series about refugees and asylum seekers who were housed in appaling conditions in the Calais refugee camp. The absence of people and the focus on personal artefacts -left behind toothbrushes, bits of clothing, dolls, personal artefacts,- create an emotional portrait of the people who were housed there. Paul Seawright touches upon the absence of people in his images in his series ‘Sectarian Murders’ (images of locations where sectarian murders happened in Northern Ireland), in a 2015 interview with Donovan Wylie he remarked, “the space between the text and the image is where you imagine the violence. And I think that’s much more powerful than the kind of immediate closure you get from photographing the crime scene with the body”. It is this ‘space’ between the image and the viewer that I want to explore and bring into my series.
Photography and death are recurring themes in Barthes’s “Camera Lucida’. He saw photographs as ‘Memento Mori’ -reminders of our mortality-just like graves. In his writings about the ‘punctum’, he discusses the personal detail within a photograph that can emotionally impact or “prick” the viewer. Graves, and the artefacts that adorn them, have similar properties that can sometimes stop us in our tracks- a note left on a grave or a child’s toy hits some part of us eliciting an emotional response, reminding us of the passage of time, the threat of loss and the transience of life.
Graveyards as Place
Graveyards have a strong sense of place expressed by physical space and the conventions of their use. The repetition of graves, and gravestones lends a sense of scale and inevitability, reinforcing the message of our mortality. On the most obvious level, they are places of the dead and display the many expressions of interment -graves, gravestones, yew trees, mausoleums, crypts, shrines, flowers, statues, chapels… They tend to be quiet, well kept, and provide places of reflection including seats, benches, and gardens. Visitors are expected to behave following established etiquette and norms.
Graves & Indentity
When we die the living tell our story. Sometimes, this is partly reflected in how graves are tended and adorned with objects that express or give us hints about the person within. The grave is a space with defined dimensions, and within this frame, the mourner creates a unique narrative. They are often adorned or decorated with mementoes to remind us or tell us something of the person within and as an expression of memory, grief and loss. These mementoes tend to have a commonality, a language of place and remembrance -crucifixes, stone angels, flower holders, gravestones with engraved dates, and the ubiquitous ‘beloved’ father, mother son, daughter etc..) as well as memorabilia- a football shirt, a flag, an angel, a toy car, pets, a message, a photo, toys-, however, like a photograph, the essence of the person remains elusive, and we learn something of the mourner as well as the deceased, albeit how the mourner wants us to remember them.
Mourners (and how they tend graves) have a life cycle (or phases) that have similarities to Arnold van Gennep’s rites of passage including the phase of separation, liminality, incorporation. In the ‘separation’ phase the mourner is separated from their former roles -husband, wife, son, and daughter etc, and experiences a detachment (often sudden, sometimes traumatic but can also be gradual) from an old way of life. During ‘liminality’ the individual is in a transitional state, often expressed as ‘betwixt and between’ – neither fully part of their old world nor yet incorporated into the new one. During this phase, the ritual of adorning and tending graves is most noticeable. Visit any graveyard and you can spot these gaves easily as they are adorned with artefacts and memorabilia. The final phase ‘incorporation’ signals the individual’s acceptance into the new role and often will be reflected in a decrease in how graves are tended and kept-a signal of letting go and closure.
Although this series focuses primarily on Christian graves and a small geographic area, rituals and commonalities exist across many cultures and are differentiated by intensity and focus. For example, in Mexico, they celebrate ‘Día de los Muertos’ which includes visiting graves, tidying them, telling stories about the deceased, special meals, and other culturally rich rituals. Van Genneps’s rites of passage help us understand these rituals, their commonalities and the inherent symbolism that becomes the language of graves.
Making The Images
All images in the series were shot using an analogue camera (Mamyia 645) and self-developed in black and white. I used the same film stock Kodak T-Max 400 and developer (T9) for consistency, before scanning them to give me a digital negative. In my research phase, I also used a digital camera as it allowed me to work faster and take more photographs which I later analysed and then went back and shot in analogue. I found using an analogue camera challenging as you must slow down and consider everything more carefully. However, this also helps me with the craft of photography from conception and research, to making the images, developing, curating and presenting them.
Presenting the images
For this assignment, the images are presented in a sequence, to first give a sense of place and then roughly on van Gennep’s phases of separation, liminality, and incorporation as represented by the graves themselves. I am also getting them printed in a book (not ready for the assignment) as it gives me more flexibility to present the images and experiment with flows and structure.
While doing this assignment, I was struck by the strong parallels between a grave and a photgraphic image. Barthes’s ideas in ‘Camera Lucida’ helped me crystalise my thinking. The idea of ‘puctum’, that element in an image that can be an emotional prick and connection- is relevant for graves; they can stop us in our tracks- something on them can elicit a strong emotional response. Other similarities include both as ‘memento mori’, and how time is represented -the past brought into the present to keep memory alive.
Quality of outcome
For the most part, the images work. I wanted to avoid repetition within the images but many graves have similar artefacts, and this is what expresses and reinforces their common language and symbolism.
The series is far from complete and I would like to explore more cultures and religions to see if the connections I’ve made here are valid in a wider context. I also would like to dig deeper into the parallels between graves and the photographic image and show that creatively better.
I plan to reshoot some images to finish the series stronger as I wanted to show the delineation between newly tended and grves that are incorporated back into nature.
Barthes,Roland, 1993, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography,London,Vintage Classics
Challenger, Gemma 2023,Cemetery Culture and Traditions for people from the Traveller communities with regards to cemeteries and burying the dead. https://www.gypsy-traveller.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Cemetery-Culture-and-Traditions_v2.pdf (accessed 01/09/2023)
Making Photo Books: Four Key Questions to Consider: https://www.magnumphotos.com/events/making-photo-books-four-key-questions-to-consider/? gclid=Cj0KCQjw7JOpBhCfARIsAL3bobeXMVK_FLhUY8X3v3Mii7UJxOKTbx4_aTyiU1Zps7DyI273TwtvHPsaAtn7EALw_wcB (accessed 29/9/2023)
McLeod,Belinda 2022,17 Ways People Respect the Dead All Over the World https://www.joincake.com/blog/respect-the-dead/#:~:text=Perhaps%20you%20place%20flowers%20or,show%20respect%20to%20the%20deceased (accessed 10/09/2023)
MILROY MAHER, DANIEL 2023, Capturing the pathos of loss – and the pain of longing for home https://www.1854.photography/2023/06/ali-monis-naqvi-ones-to-watch/ (01/09/2023)
Interview – Paul Koudounaris https://acourseindying.com/interview-paul-koudounaris/ (accessed 02/09/2023)
Moor,John,2015, A grieving woman speaking into a gravestone at Arlington Cemetery, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jul/09/john-moore-best-photograph-grieving-woman-arlington-cemetery-washington-dc-memorial-day (accessed 28/09/2023)
Kohl, Jess, 2016, Friends of the Dead, https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/gallery/8319/jess-kohls-friends-of-the-dead-people-in-graveyards/0 (accessed 01/09/2023)
Van Gennep,2019, Arnald,The Rites of Passage, Second Edition, chicago, University of Chicago Press
Seawright, Paul, Things Left Unsaid – in conversation with Donovan Wylie (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9F7ISkEvM8 accessed 10/08/2023)
Storm, Dan, 2023, https://www.lensculture.com/dane-strom (accessed 05/09/2023)