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Putting death in the picture
Los Angeles-based photographer Andrew George has turned his lens on a section of society which, over the past hundred years, has been increasingly hidden behind the closed doors of hospitals and hospices: people dying from a terminal illness.
His project, Right, Before I Die (at the Bruges Museum, Belgium, until 28 June), focuses on those living with the knowledge of, and, more vitally, accepting, their impending death. As with renowned British photographer Rankin’s Alive: in the Face of Death exhibition last year, George’s images are of ordinary people, the every man and every woman who make up the overwhelmingly majority of humankind.
The humble yet heartbreaking images are accompanied by the subjects' often inspiring words, captured by George during each sitting, which prompt us to make the most of what we have now, reminding us that we are all on the same train, it's just that some of us are further down the carriages.
Dying Matters spoke to George about why he wanted to "make a blueprint of the souls" of dying people, and what he himself wants at the end of life.
What inspired you to take photographs of people facing imminent death?
The project came about for a number of reasons that are pretty clear to me now, though at the time the idea appeared it was pretty daunting and I just sort of dared myself to do it out of sheer will and the belief that it could be significant. There were two main reasons. First, I have been a meditator for many years and have grappled with the concept of the transience of all things. I wanted to illustrate that with living examples who embodied that reality with awareness, equanimity and acceptance. My subjects had to be seemingly unremarkable people - although they were anything but - in order to make the point that we’re all terminal; these 20 individuals just happen to be officially so. The project is about us all and how we each choose to address this unavoidable truth.
Secondly, a few years ago I attended the memorial service for a friend’s mother. There were so many people filled with such genuine love for her. I wondered what it was about this person that inspired that. She lived comfortably but wasn’t famous and there was nothing especially unusual about her life or her accomplishments, yet people stood up, one by one, compelled to speak about her, and the outpouring of love was tangible. How did this ordinary woman generate so much love? The question fascinated me.
I have always photographed, for lack of a better term, ‘still lifes’ composed of accidental collaborations of mundane things. My compositions constantly take on new appearances with changing light and shadows and, in turn, transcend themselves and become something else, something I find striking and beautiful and don’t really have words for. They’re not traditional landscapes, scenes or nature portraits. I’ve never been drawn to portraiture and haven’t done much of it but this project seemed like an extension of what I naturally gravitate towards and so became the obvious next step and the only project I was interested in creating. I set out to make a blueprint of the souls of individuals in pictures, words and with personal writings and drawings from my subjects.
How and where did you approach your subjects?
After reaching out to numerous hospitals unsuccessfully, I found Dr Marwa Kilani at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the north Valley of Los Angeles, and she instantly recognised what I was seeking to do and agreed to work with me. Dr Kilani sees several dozen patients a week, and every time she encountered someone exceptional who had made peace with their condition and was willing to talk about it, she would pitch my project to them and, if they agreed to take part, I would drop everything and drive an hour to meet them. I had prepared a list of 30 of the 'big questions', and would spend a few hours interviewing them and then take their portrait. It was an incredibly moving but difficult period of my life, and I marveled at what I witnessed over and over: the uncanny ability of these individuals to cancel out the noise of trivia and, with enlightened clarity, focus on what was truly important in their lives.
Was it important to you that these people were "ordinary"?
Absolutely, and I mean that in the most respectful way. I think, for a number of reasons, it's harder to empathise with people who are in the spotlight.
What were the key things you wanted to capture in each portrait?
I knew that my time with my subjects was very limited and that, aside from their friends or family, the unusual and special qualities that made me want to photograph and speak with them would never be experienced by so many others. So I had to capture something authentic and I had to get it right the first time.
Did the hospice environment create any particular technical difficulties?
Yes! imagine photographing unhealthy men and women in small, terribly lit and unattractively decorated hospital rooms. Now, imagine trying to capture in these individuals a beauty and grace that transcends all of those obstacles.
Had all of your subjects reached a point where they had become accepting of their death?
That is the main premise of the project, and one of my pre-conditions. I was only interested in photographing and speaking with willing participants.
I could have spent twice as long speaking with many of them. They all possessed a certain fearless stance towards their lives, meaning they had reconciled who they were with what they had done and how life had happened, and were okay with it.
Looking at the photographs, Sarah (main picture) appears significantly younger than the other participants. Did you find her situation more challenging because of this?
Not especially: none of us know how long we have and Sarah was fortunate to have cultivated extraordinary wisdom from her hardships and I believe this guided her and gave her a certain peace many of us never achieve, especially at her young age. It is so terribly sad that she died so young but it’s as if her time on earth was somehow heightened.
What do you feel the subjects' testimonies added to the project?
I set out to make a blueprint of the extraordinary souls of ordinary individuals. It took photography, conversation and personal writings to achieve this. I am so proud of my recently released book because I believe it accurately represents the experience and impact I intended.
Why do you think as a society death has become so taboo?
Better minds than mine have answered this extensively so I’ll give up you a simplified conclusion. It is my opinion that we grow too attached to sensations, experiences and others and this prevents us from being present to the magic in everything that is constantly surrounding us, or which can surround us, if we have the courage and if we have the ability to adapt, as nature does. The brave women and men in this project remind us of this.
Do you believe in an afterlife? Where, if anywhere, do you think your subjects went after their deaths?
I believe that we all live on in the memory traces or influence we leave behind on other individuals, sometimes imperceptibly subtly, and often without the slightest hint of its origin.
Where and how would you like to die?
There is a Poem by Raymond Carver called “Late Fragment” that I would say answers both:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Right, Before I Die is at the Musea Brugge, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, Belgium until 28 June 2015.
A hardcover book of Right, Before I Die is available from Rightbeforeidie.com.