Until Death Do You Part: Portraits of the Dying

Life Before Death
noch mal leben:
portraits of the dying

photographs by
Walters Schels

texts by
Beate Lakotta

Edelgard Clavey
age: 67
born: 29th June 1936
first portrait taken: 5th December 2003
died: 4th January 2004, at Helenenstift Hospice, Hamburg

Photographs of the deceased hark back to the birth of photography – when portrait sittings were considered an expensive splurge yet a last chance to capture a likeness of the subject. While the following work has great emotional impact in it’s universal examination of death, I have to ask my readers: would you want a before and after like this? Is a likeness in death necessary to commemorate a loved one? Or, is this examination something more than that?

This exhibition features people whose lives are coming to an end. It explores the experiences, hopes and fears of the terminally ill. All of them agreed to be photographed shortly before and immediately after death.

The majority of the subjects portrayed spent their last days in hospices. All those who come to such places realise that their lives are drawing to a close. They know there is not much time left to settle their personal affairs. Yet hardly anyone here is devoid of hope: they hope for a few more days; they hope that a dignified death awaits them or that death will not be the end of everything.

Edelgard Clavey (pictured) was an administrative assistant in the university’s psychiatric clinic. She has lived on her own since her divorce in the early eighties. She doesn’t have any children. From her teens she has been an active member of the Protestant church. For the past few weeks she has been bed-bound. “Death is a test of one’s maturity. Everyone has to get through it on their own”, says Frau Clavey. “I want so very much to die. I want to become part of that vast extraordinary light. But dying is hard work. Death is in control of the process, I cannot influence its course. All I can do is wait. I was given my life, I had to live it, and now I am giving it back.

I’ve always worked hard, following a similar path to a nun: poverty, chastity, obedience. Now, I am no longer able to contribute anything to society and this pains me terribly. I do not want to be a financial drain on resources, yet another living corpse that is only a burden. I want to go, preferably immediately. Always be prepared, just like the boy scouts.”

To see more of this work, visit the essay on lensculture.com.

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