Shabbat Shalom! The summer of 2013 my cousin Weston set me up with an Instagram. I was turning 23 that summer, he had already turned 13 so I could count on him to help keep me with it. Typical to most interactions like this, he soon stopped using his with his first profile deleted and his next posting last in 2014, while my last post was about a week ago. I think something similar happened to me and my father with Facebook, though I am getting back into it.
I carried my Instagram with me into grad school. It was a fun way to share my casual photography hobby with a small group of friends and family. It also made public another hobby of mine started several years earlier of photographing death. My first post on death was a small bird on the sidewalk I saw on my way to class while walking by Memorial Stadium. I snapped it just weeks after the loss of my Grandma. Its caption, like most of the similar images that have followed, simply stated, “fallen comrade.” It seemed to best capture my myriad of motivations while also inviting whoever saw it to approach it with familiarity and their own experiences.
This last January, I had the somewhat hilarious experience of being lied to online by a man on a dating app. When I questioned his changing age–32, 28, 41, 28, 41–and confronted him that I had looked him up online to verify his age, he causally deflected that he was not a “creepy person” who looked people up online. Having long embraced the moniker of “creepy person,” I stately flatly that I was and for evidence I bluntly told him of my hobby of taking pictures of dead animals and occasionally posting them online. He recoiled and wished I was lying, but unlike him I am not a liar. He took offense when I tried to share evidence of my honesty with one of my more artistic photos, requesting of course his evidence of honesty in return, which never could be produced. It occurred to me then that there were likely people who scrolled quickly past my fallen comrades and not just because they were squeamish and uncomfortable with death, but because they were offended. So perhaps it is time to attempt an explanation of my motives.
While I had many personal experiences with death before I went to college, it wasn’t until I read “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1735-1812,” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich at Hollins University that I began to think of death and culture. My seminar class discussed the atmosphere of death and how Martha Ballard notated it as casually as she did the weather. It was a common occurrence, part of every day life. The culture of death in the United States changed again after the Civil War with macabre practices coming into popular practice such as hair wreaths or death portraits. Our culture when I started making these posts tended to hide death and mourning– it was something private unless a public figure died, and not the frequent, common occurrence that Martha Ballard experienced.
Taking death portraits of animals seemed a natural thing for me to do. It was a moment for me to consider that animal’s life, mourn its passing, and consider the fragility of life. It fueled sort of a morbid curiosity about decay and the life springing out from loss. Sharing those images was a way to confront society with the daily death that surrounded us and went by without much notice. During those years my family, friends, and I experienced many close painful losses. This was a means of public mourning. By calling the animals comrades, I tried to communicate a compassion for the animal that once shared that breath of life with me and attempted to have my viewers relate to the animals on a personal level.
Today our society does not need to be confronted with the idea that death surrounds us. As of writing this post, the United States has lost 94,594 people to coronavirus in about three months. This loss of life is absolutely devastating and I find myself wondering how our culture is going to respond. Will we be like Martha Ballard and approach it as an inevitable part of life? Or will we cling to macabre mementos like the families coming out of the Civil War?
No matter how much has changed, Ballard was correct that death is part of living. You are bound to experience loss and your own death is inescapable. Taking a moment to consider death and mourn the passing of a creature or human you did not know is a means of taking a moment to appreciate life. I don’t really view my portraiture of dead animals as a dark, creepy, gross venture, rather I see it as mournful celebration of lives that otherwise would not be celebrated or noticed. It is a way to appreciate my own life, in all its fragility.