Notes on Photography and Death: Mourning, Spectacle, Evidence
New WritingThe Death DetectivesThe Digital Image

Notes on Photography and Death: Mourning, Spectacle, Evidence

Image: Marfa Ilinitchna Riazantseva, 1937 © Archives centrales FSB et Archives nationales de la Fédération de Russie GARF, Moscou, copies publiées à partir des archives de l’Association internationale Memorial, Moscou.

To coincide with The Death Detectives, a recent event at The Photographers’ Gallery, we have invited each speaker to contribute their thoughts to our blog. Here, Anthony Luvera shares his.


The inevitability and unpredictability of death is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. With much of the project of living spent seeking security and attempting to obtain and sustain control, it is the unknowingness of the timing and experience of death that makes it so confronting. Yet, attitudes to death are culturally constructed and coping mechanisms are formed through the meaning systems of social institutions.

The social theorist Chris Shilling has argued that ‘conditions of high modernity have made the modern individual’s confrontation with death especially difficult… Death has become a particular existential problem for people as a result of modern forms of embodiment, rather than being a universal problem for human beings which assumes the same form irrespective of time or place’ (2003: 153). When once the occasion of death was highly social, with public displays of mourning and events commonly taking place with the body of the deceased laid out to mark the occasion, now it is sequestered and privatised within institutions, and understood to be a problem for specialist knowledge and medical science. As the sociologist Norbert Elias observed, ‘never before have people died as noiselessly and hygienically as today… and never in social conditions fostering so much solitude’ (1985: 85). Where once religion provided a ‘sacred canopy… a shared vision of the world, the body and self-identity’ (Shilling 2003: 154) the increasingly secularised formation of Western societies has marginalised the communal spaces for death that once anaesthetised dread about the meaningless of living in the face of the unknowable event of death.

The photographic medium is underwritten by death, in both the production and consumption of images across the contexts of art, science, commerce and personal photography, and in analysis of the histories and ontology of the photograph. Deathly analogies and characterisations have riven considerations of the photograph since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century to today. From as early as 1840 when Hippolyte Bayard posed as a corpse in protest at the lack of recognition by the French government for his photogenic inventions, through to Andre Bazin who described photography as form of embalming life in his influential essay, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ (1960). Susan Sontag likened to the indexicality of the photograph to a death mask, writing ‘all photographs are memento mori that enable participation in another’s mortality’ (1977: 154). And more recently, historians such as Geoffrey Batchen (1999; 2004; 2009), Christian Metz (1985), Margaret Iversen (1994) and Audrey Linkman (2011) – to name a just a few – have all spoken of how the deathly qualities of photographs pose an uncanniness that might be seen as a return of the dead.

The strongest influence on the talk of death that circulates in ontological discussions about photography reverberates out of Roland Barthes’s, Camera Lucida (1980). In this text – arguably one of the cornerstones of contemporary photographic theory – Barthes has this to say:

All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know they are agents of Death. This is the way in which our time assumes Death… For Death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intently) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print. (Barthes 1980: 92)

Barthes stretches this death analogy throughout his meditation on the qualities of the photograph – written while in mourning for the death of his mother – leading a number of critics to attest it has produced an overbearing melancholic tone in much subsequent consideration of the photographic medium. He argues that the temporality peculiar to the photograph is best thought of as an expression of the tautology of the French grammatical term future anterior, which loosely translates as ‘That has been’. Photography is a past tense medium. As they can only ever be seen after the actual moment depicted, photographs will always intimate death.

Barthes’s comments about the marginalisation of space for death are just as relevant to our conversation here. As society has become increasingly secularised since the mid-nineteenth century – corresponding to the arrival of the photographic medium – space for Death is now primarily carved out in various forms of production and consumption of photographic representation. Communal responses and collective rites and rituals for death, dying and mourning have been tidied away while the hunger to view representations of death and dying has grown: reality programmes set in accident and emergency departments, documentaries about war, websites set up as spaces for memorialisation, and exhibitions in art and photography galleries – not to mention the deluge of violent films and television series that has arisen in recent decades. The forces of consumption that drive the production of the spectacle of death in contemporary culture might be likened to a fissure that forges its way around a blockage, as public audiences continue to seek out systems and spaces to try to obtain knowledge of death.

So, how are we meant to view photographs of death when they are displayed in public? Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence is an exhibition of images produced for very different contexts to the one in which they are now on show. The curator Diane Dufour contends this is an exhibition about the visual systems that gave rise to the production and articulation of the images – the product of professional practices of “ evidence” as constructed for the various quantitative purposes of judiciary systems. The crux of this is the interplay of a reliance on the image as documentation and the image as persuasion when tied to specific narratives, measurements, calculations, diagrams, testimonies or the architecture of a courtroom. While all photographs provide evidence of a sort – this happened then – the truth claims of the images in this exhibition are especially vulnerable when seen out of their original contexts. For as much as these images purport to show or reveal something about the act or effect of violent crime, it is what they lack that reveals both the ability and the ineptitude of images to harbour notions of truth.

As a consideration of the role of images in the construction of evidence, Burden of Proof – by stealth or design – appears to me to do just as much to provide space for death as it satiates a public desire to see and to try to know death. To view images of or about death may not necessarily get us any closer to the truth of death, but the sting of their temporality is acute as they evoke the deathly riddles of the ontology of the photograph.

Anthony Luvera

Anthony Luvera is an Australian artist, writer and educator based in London. He is Course Director of BA (Hons) Photography at Coventry University. His photographic work has been exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces and festivals, including the British Museum, London Underground’s Art on the Underground, National Portrait Gallery London, Belfast Exposed Photography, Australian Centre for Photography, Malmö Fotobiennal, Brighton Photo Fringe, PhotoIreland and Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie. His writing appears regularly in a wide range of publications, including Photoworks, Source and Photographies. Anthony also facilitates workshops and gives lectures for the public education programmes of the National Portrait Gallery, The Photographers’ Gallery, and Barbican Art Gallery.


Bazin, A. (1960) ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’. Film Quarterly 13 (4), 4-9

Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Jonathan Cape

Batchen, G. (1999) Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Batchen, G. (2004) Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum and Princeton Architectural Press

Batchen, G. (ed) (2009) Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Elias, N. (1985) The Loneliness of the Dying. Oxford: Blackwell

Iversen, M. (1994) ‘What is a photograph?’. Art History 17(3), 450 – 463

Linkman, A. (2011) Photography and Death. London: Reaktion Books

Metz, C. (1985), ‘Photography and Fetish’. October (34), 81-90

Shilling, C. (2003) The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin

This is the Life I Got Left
New WritingThe Death Detectives

This is the Life I Got Left

To coincide with The Death Detectives, a recent event at The Photographers’ Gallery, we have invited each speaker to contribute their thoughts to our blog. Here, Matt Gieve introduces the acronym YOLO, its historial precedents and the urgency that death places on life.

In the cult 1979 film The Warriors, Swan – the leader of the gang – and Mercy, his soon-to-be-girl, walk along a New York subway track having just escaped the police. After a series of jibes about her promiscuity Mercy confronts him:

“ Look, what do you got against me? You’ve been picking on me all night.”

“ I don’t like the way you live’ he says, “ I don’t think you can remember who you get on Friday and Saturday nights. I don’t think you can remember what they look like.”

“ Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t.” She replies “ Who gives a damn? I see what’s happening next door and down the block. Belly hanging down, five kids, cockroaches in the cupboard. I’ll tell you what I want. I want something now. This is the life I got left. You know what I mean? You get it Warrior, huh? Get it?”

There are many limits on life but the most binding of these is time. Death gives life urgency. A sentiment encapsulated succinctly by the latter-day philosopher of excess, Drake in his 2011 single The Motto, where the motto is ‘YOLO: You Only Live Once’. Such is the urgency he uses and acronym to save time.

While YOLO has since become a hackneyed internet meme, an ironic hashtag: ‘just drank a full-fat Coke, YOLO’, it also captures a particular cultural attitude toward death. If we can assume Drake’s major preoccupation is not with the biological fact of mortality so much as the imperative this gives to the living, then it can be read a rap version of the aphorism “ you might be run over by a bus tomorrow.”

Death says: “ Don’t leave it till later, do it now. This is the life I got left. You know what I mean?”

I was reassured, for the purposes of this seeming a sufficiently high-brow piece, to find that YOLO is originally attributed to Goethe, appearing in his 1774 play Clavigo, as, Man lebt nur einmal in der Welt.” – One lives but once in the world (or to give it the Drake treatment, OLBOITW). It then made its way through various iterations, such as Mae West’s longhand version, “ You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough” (YOLOBIYDIROIE), to Drake, to whom it finally fell to bring some much needed simplicity (YOLO). It appears that this imperative to haste is something that people have felt in different historical times, that despite great differences in the way we live, some features of life may be shared: a reassuring communion over the ages?

Phillipe Aries, the great French social historian of death, argues not. Death, like life, is different now. And in fact it is one thing we’ve been getting worse at. Contrary to the prevailing direction of change over the last millennium, death has been getting wilder over time: transforming from the comparative comfort of the tame death in the early Middle Ages, through various configurations to the forbidden or denied death of today (or of the 1970s).

Aries points to a range of factors to explain this shift: To our waning familiarity with death, both forestalled by medicine and ever more private when it does occur; and to sweeping secularisation eroding a once impeccable confidence in life beyond death. Bound up with this, the consequences of scientific revolution, and in particular the insights of Darwin repositioning human kind within nature itself. The human is now so much more animal, a biological organism with no soul to outlive its flesh. If it were not true before, nowadays we REALLY do only live once.

While this might address the question of Only Living Once, it does not fully speak to the question of who it is that is doing so. The final and crucial factor in our shifting experience of death is the emergence of the individual: the self in its modern form. This change has dual effects. First, the process of greater individualisation starts to undermine a once assumed position in a greater shared continuity, though either family or clan, increasingly isolating the individual within the bounds of their own lifetime. Second, the emphasis on the individual-as-agent leads to what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes as the impossible Liberal ideal of self-authorship, the idea that our lives and our actions are or should be entirely of our own choosing. Adding pressure upon the individual to make the most of this most limited resource. The greatest sin now is to have not experienced, to have gone without. A duty that each person bears to themselves. Charging YOLO with ever greater urgency. The effect of this as Aries suggests, is the very modern possibility of one’s life being felt to be a failure:

“ Today the adult experiences sooner or later, and increasingly it is sooner, the feeling that he has failed, that his adult life has failed to achieve any of the promises of his adolescence”.

And this for Aries is why death has become so unspeakably frightening, as he puts it: “ When people started fearing death in earnest, they stopped talking about it.”

The obvious irony of this circumstance is that, notwithstanding misfortune, we live longer now than ever before. We have, in Mercy’s words, “ more life left”. Yet we find ourselves in the peculiar position whereby death is at once further off and at the same time more imminent.

The risk is that urgency of too great an order may sabotage the full life it appears to recommend. YOLO and the attitudes that underlie it are in some ways self-defeating; by further stoking feelings of haste they provoke either a paralysis of choice or a frantic attempt to fulfil multiple possibilities to the detriment of all.

This paradox is foreshadowed in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

“ It is strange to see with what feverish ardour the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.”

Like these Americans, of whom I believe we are inheritors, it increasingly falls to us as individuals to trouble the question of what makes a good death, and in answering this, what makes a good life? In the face of fewer certainties and greater choice, where failure is felt to be a real risk, a better question may be what makes a good enough life?

– Matthew Gieve

Matthew Gieve is a researcher and consultant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. He graduated in politics and philosophy and holds a Masters in psychoanalytic theory from University College London. He works in applied social research across a wide range of fields, centering on issues of social exclusion with a particular focus on children and families and on mental health.