by Elizabeth Heyert
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jul 24th 2007
These pictures were taken at a Harlem funeral home where the funeral director Isaiah Owens provides the service of a traditional burial with the deceased dressed up to enter paradise. Owens would get the agreement of the family to have photos taken, and he would phone Heyert, who would come up when the body was dressed and ready for burial. Often it would be very early in the morning, on the day of the burial, before the 10 a.m. service. She would get her lights set up and she would ask Owens to arrange the clothes or arms in way to make sure the person looked natural. Heyert would be up a ladder, hanging over the body. She shot thirty-three portraits over 13 months starting in February 2003. She says in her interview published at the end of the book that the process was an emotional experience that would often affect her for days afterwards.
All the people photographed in The Travelers are African American, and all died in Harlem. We are not told the causes of death, although a couple look as if they met violent ends. All those photographed have been dressed carefully, and they appear against a black background so there is no sign of their coffin. The camera is at about the level of their waist, so we are looking up into their faces. Most of the women are wearing hats, gloves, and nice dresses. They have been made up to look peaceful and some are smiling. The older men wear jackets and ties, while the two younger men wear baseball caps and sportswear. All have their eyes closed, but of course they do not look asleep, because no one sleeps dressed like that, and sometimes their arms are at awkward angles.
In her interview, Heyert discusses what she meant to achieve with this series. She emphasizes that she wanted to do portraiture, at the end of life. She was not trying to make memorial photographs, also known as "post-mortem" photographs, which were popular in the nineteenth century, and were mainly for families to remember their loved one. Heyert says she tried to learn something about the person she was photographing and capture some of the person in her pictures.
There's much that is admirable about Heyert's project. She is very conscious about the role of race, especially since she is a white person with no religious beliefs, and she is taking pictures of black people in a religious setting. Furthermore, the project is very unusual -- the only images we generally of death come from the news, where people have died in accidents, disease, or through violence. Most of us are very uncomfortable with dead bodies and want medical professionals or funeral home staff to deal with them. Even looking at pictures of the dead feels like it is breaking a taboo. Seeing these dead people from a Harlem funeral home gives us a view into a world that most of us would never have any access to.
However, as portraits, these pictures do not get the viewer much closer to their subjects. We know nothing about their lives apart from their names, date of birth, and their date and place of death. So we are left to look at their clothes they are wearing, which they may never have previously worn or chosen for themselves. Heyert mentions a little about how knowing the details of their lives meant so much to her as she was photographing them, but she does not include any of that information with the pictures. So we are left to guess about them judging from their clothes, faces and hands. It isn't much to go on.
Furthermore, to be unavoidably trite, we don't look at our best when we are dead. Heyert's portraits of dead people certainly present a different aspect of them from what we would have seen if she had been able to photograph them when they were alive. My guess is that portraits of the living would be more revealing. It's a striking achievement that she was able to do any portraits of the dead, but as portraits of people, these images don't do much. The images are positive and dignified, and are not morbid in the sense of representing an unhealthy interest in death, yet the experience of viewing them is nevertheless macabre, because there is so little of the living person left in what we strangers see. There's a real danger that Heyert's attempt to give us portraits of people after they have died will be a gimmick. Since the presentation in this book provides so little about the people shown, the results are mediocre portraits. As viewers of these images, our relation to the people portrayed can't be sustained in the sense of coming to know something about them.
This leaves us with the main option of changing our perspective to a more comfortable sociological one, viewing the practices of an ethnic group. But since we don't even see the funeral home or the staff who work there, again, we can't learn very much. So the whole experience of viewing these images is frustrating. Heyert's project is unique and her photography is done very well given the obvious limitations of the circumstances when taking the portraits, but the presentation in this book places the viewer in a problematic position.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.