In your latest series, At the Hour of Our Death, you explore swatches of bedding, carpet and upholstery stained with traces of bodily fluids, resulting from traumatic and natural deaths. How did this project come about for you?
When I was 17 I lost a close friend to suicide. I visited his home the next day to spend time mourning with his family and a few other close friends. I remember sitting in the kitchen talking to his mother and seeing a clean up crew with an industrial vacuum cleaner walk down the hallway to his bedroom. After the crew had left I was allowed in to his room. Everything seemed eerily normal. As if the event had not really happened and it was just a terrible dream. However reality reminded me that indeed he was gone yet no evidence of this fact remained. The first time I got to see him was at the wake, dressed with makeup on laid in a coffin. I do not wish to have found him but witnessing nothing of the process and only seeing him again in a false and altered state did little to soften my grieving and shock of the loss.
Having lost your friend to suicide, was this project a difficult challenge to face?
Honestly, no. I think one reason is for the last 16 years I have thought of my friend and replayed that day in my head as well as the preceding months searching for answers. And unfortunately he has not been the only person I have lost to suicide, illness or old age in the last 16 years. However having a first hand knowledge of loss both natural and traumatic has enabled me to deal with the emotions that arise when working on such a project. Secondly the camera acts as a barrier or shield in some ways. I am present and aware of what I am photographing yet with the camera in front of my eye I am able to keep a certain distance or detachment from the material for a period of time. I am heavily focused on my process and making sure the exposure is correct and the image is in perfect focus. However, I can typically only shoot two hours at a time due the smell of the stained textiles and the emotional/psychological exhaustion associated with the project.
I love a brave photographer, and bravery seems to definitely play a role in your work. How did you get the opportunity to work with these fabrics and surfaces? How did you manage to obtain the cause of death and age of the victims?
While working on my long term project, Repository several avenues of interest presented themselves. One of them being medical waste–specifically the stains and the material which had been deemed a biohazard. I had also been thinking a lot about the death of my friend when I was in high school and how the event shaped my view of the world and my own mortality. These two pieces led me to contact crime scene clean up crews.
Originally I had intended to photograph the scene before the crew cleaned it and just after. I was thinking about juxtaposing the event with the absence of the event. I was told I may or may not get access to do this. Upon my initial visit, the crew had just brought back material from the scene of a suicide. I was shown an oval shaped section of mattress which had been removed from the whole. Visually these smaller more concentrated fragments of evidence grabbed my attention. The stains from this person's passing transformed the ordinary beige mattress in to beautiful hues of yellow and red. Artists mention a moment when all things become clear, or an Aha! moment. This was mine.
Since I was first trained as a photojournalist I am always interested in facts. I like to include text where appropriate. In the case of At the Hour of Our Death I decided early on I wanted to title each photograph in the manner in which the person died. I kept notes and every time I went to photograph I would ask someone what they new about the fragment or piece I was photographing.
Walley Films recently filmed you working on At the Hour of Our Death for a documentary. I would imagine it is typically a quiet and methodical photographing process for you when you are working in the warehouse? Did having a film crew there affect your image making at all?
It was certainly the first time Iʼve had an audience watch me work. Typically I repeat the same process for each swatch I am photographing–its slow and I imagine a bit redundant if anyone were to stand there and watch me. However with the crew filming me I worked slower than normal and had to repeat certain steps so they could catch it from different angles. I would have to say it was a distraction and certainly changed my flow however I it was well worth it to have the Walleyʼs capture it on film. The five minute film was released in late October. It has already received over 55,000 views on Vimeo. The Walleys and I are thrilled about this.
I have received numerous comments on Vimeo and personal emails from doctors, EMTs, mothers and everyone in between. For the most part they have all been extremely positive and heartfelt responses to the work. Unfortunately I did receive one threatening email from a photographer who said I was a disgrace to the profession and told me to f*** off. Iʼve considered reporting his threat to the authorities but have yet to do so. Instead I might post all the beautiful emails Iʼve received along with this gentleman's hateful response on my blog.
How has this project affected your life, as a person who has experienced loss, and as a photographer?
I do feel at times specifically with this series that I might be taking advantage of a tragedy. I know I had nothing to do with the events leading up to the personʼs death however I still find myself standing on and sometimes over my own moral line. Although I have made work about death is does not mean I am acting without an ounce of humanity. I sincerely feel for the families who have come home to find their loved one dead or dying. I also feel for the person who has passed on. I wonder who they were and what events lead to their death. I am more attached to the suicides and overdoses. I stand there half mesmerized by the stain left behind while the other half of me has to hold back tears as I think about how lonely and afraid this person must have felt in their final moments. I hope to finish the series by this summer. It requires tremendous logistical planning and Iʼve noticed it takes a mental and emotional toll on me. I do not know if what I am doing is crossing the line but something pushes me to continue making this hauntingly beautiful work.