When Death Comes
This assignment is inspired by Crossing Over, one of the stories in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine photographed by Lynn Johnson and photo edited by Elizabeth Krist.
It’s rare for most of us to think about death from day to day. We are immersed in the energy and distractions of plans, work, entertainment, and deadlines. But it is one certainty we all share: death will be a part of our lives. Many feel that the more we integrate death as a natural condition of living, the easier it will be to contemplate the end of life as we age. Others prefer to keep any hint of death from entering their consciousness until the last possible moment. Some believe that death is a second birth, a transition to another phase of existence.
Whatever your beliefs, we would like you to share with us your visual interpretation of this inescapable event. Our intention is for this assignment to cover the broadest parameters, and we welcome images of any aspect of dying--whether caring for loved ones in their last days, expressing rage at the unfairness of imminent death, funerary rituals, significant objects left behind, the despair of mourning, the loss of a beloved pet, the remembrance of one you’ve lost no matter how long ago—even acceptance and celebration of a life well lived. Show us how death has affected you.
In our April issue, National Geographic features two companion stories on dying. One on how science is re-examining the traditionally accepted thresholds of death, and the other on unusual customs and attitudes toward death in one particular culture. We would like to invite you to add your voice to the conversation, in one of the most intimate and direct ways possible – visual expression.
Our hope is that you will be imaginative in your interpretation of dying, and what it means to you. The only thing we ask is that you avoid the superficial. Give us intensity, and your emotion, as you contemplate one of life’s true mysteries.
…when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
This assignment will be closing at 5pm EST on April 11th.
Thank you for your contributions!
Finding Your Own Voice
When you look at a postcard, often you see a predictable sunny scene with composition so perfect that your eyes glaze over with boredom. I hope by now it’s clear that we want you to move beyond the expected—to play with mysterious dawn and dusk lighting, to skew the frame and explore a new vantage point, to add motion within the still. Experiment! Try being a bit wild—or wildly passionate—in finding your own voice.
That’s the question in life, too, isn’t it? Knowing that death awaits us, can we go beyond the expected—even beyond what’s comfortable—to find our true selves? What would we do if we had a few extra days or years? As Ben Franklin allegedly said,
“Most people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they’re 75.”
The awareness of death can infuse our lives with greater urgency and inspire a deeper appreciation every day for the gift of being alive. As poet Stephen Levine asked, “If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call to make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?”
So, our question for all of you is, if you had another chance with this assignment, what would you do with it? Only a few days left before our deadline! We have decided to give you one more submission. Can you show us what you’ve absorbed from this time we’ve spent together? Will we see a flood of compelling, powerfully crafted photographs? Our hope is that long after this assignment closes, you will remember what you’ve learned about your photography and yourselves.
“I’ll try to be around and about. But if I’m not, then you know that I’m behind your eyelids, and I’ll meet you there.” ― Terence McKenna
Please also take some time to listen to our Weekly Wrap. This week we have a conversation between Lynn Johnson, Elizabeth Krist and Marie McGrory on death and photography. We would love to hear what you think.
Visualizing the Discussion
We were talking today about whether our fascination with death—and the often intense and riveting discussions we’ve been sharing—have distracted us from a more dedicated focus on photography. What do you think? Have we been too caught up in words rather than images?
Documenting an emotional scene doesn't mean that a photographer can abandon aesthetic standards. You still need to pay attention to the design within the frame—simplifying the background, using light and composition to guide the viewer’s eye to the most important visual elements. When dealing with charged subject matter, it is even more crucial to cradle that emotion in an elegant frame.
We have been so impressed by the insight and sympathy of the voices in the conversation, but often the images don't reflect the depth of the thoughts expressed. Often, the critiques you offer each other zero in on the stories in the captions more than on the visual elements. The support and the encouragement are terrific—but is there too much congratulation and not enough practical advice? Not enough questioning?
Several of you have expressed your despair at the relentlessly dark nature of the assignment. Could we look for photographs covering rituals of death that would bring vitality and color into the final story? Is there a way to use dying to celebrate life?
Your body is away from me
But there is a window open
from my heart to yours.
From this window, like the moon
I keep sending news secretly.
The Language of Light
In this assignment, we are asking you to show us a phenomenon that goes beyond the physical. The natural assumption is that your submissions will include the familiar markers of death: funerary rituals, cemeteries, even roadkill. And yes, all those subjects are fair game. But remember that your interpretation doesn’t have to be literal. A more symbolic scene or portrait—an empty chair at the table, a favorite dress, the bereft friend—could be just as relevant, and perhaps more revealing, especially with a clear caption.
The most powerful scenes, inevitably, will be of a loved one’s final days. The gestures between a dying parent and a child and the compassion of a caregiver will carry meaning for any observer. Loss means not only losing those dear to you, but also losing the part of yourself that only they knew. We can all identify with that pain.
But whatever your image reveals to us, its impact will be magnified exponentially if the lighting conveys the mood you want the viewer to feel. In most cases there will be a delicacy of emotion that calls for softer, more evocative light. At other times, you might want the brutality of a harsh midday sun. Or the mystery of dusk, or an ominous darkness. The images that move me are the ones I will remember, and your use of light can be the most effective language you have.
Caelica 83: You that seek what life is in death
By Baron Brooke Fulke Greville
You that seek what life is in death,
Now find it air that once was breath.
New names unknown, old names gone:
Till time end bodies, but souls none.
Reader! then make time, while you be,
But steps to your eternity.