“How a society deals with death is characteristic of it,” says Swiss photographer Jonathan Liechti, talking about his Portrait of Humanity Series-winning project What happens when we die?. “In my environment – in Bern, Switzerland, Christian Reformed – people try to avoid the topic. A lot of the work is professionalised and institutionalised.”
The professionalisation of death is the focus of his series, which documents the care workers – physicians, chaplains, undertakers, crematorium staff, sextons – who strive for a dignified mourning process, as well as taking an unflinching look at the “unpleasant and difficult” topic of death itself, and the way our relationship to it has been transformed over the course of the pandemic.
Liechti’s photographs are stark and clinical, avoiding mawkishness or sentimentality; the viewer senses the brusqueness and the pressure of the pandemic measures which meant that the dying and their families were often separated from one another, or visits were strictly limited. One image shows a wall of labelled urns; others depict the hands of the deceased, faces respectfully excluded from the frame, with mortuary workers in PPE proffering a reassuring hand, or carrying the lid of a casket.
The work, Liechti says, provides a basis from which to begin a discussion. “It is an invitation to look closer, to develop a more differentiated understanding and to reflect on the various issues: how do we as a society deal with death? What are the consequences of pandemic measures on the dying process? How do we protect the most vulnerable? Who works in this field?”
These topics, uncomfortable as they may be, are indivisible from life itself: death is one of humankind’s only guarantees. On this basis it is an apt project for Portrait of Humanity, an award that aims to celebrate what unites us through difficulty. As a series winner, Liechti’s project was exhibited at Photo 22 in Melbourne, and will be exhibited at Indian Photo Festival in November this year.
The project was conceived during the second Covid-19 wave in November 2020. Death and dying were inescapable concerns, and had increased significantly due to the impact of a new coronavirus strain. Liechti teamed up with journalist Naomi Harnickell to develop an approach to the subject, as well as to secure access to the institutions with whom they eventually worked. After several interviews and photography sessions, they decided that the places on “the path of the last journey” would form the story’s basis.
“When a person dies, it affects not only their relatives, but a whole group of people who work with death every day,” Liechti explains. His work shines an important light on the nature of this work, and the facilitators who provide dignity and compassion during a time of grief. In the context of a period during which normal grieving processes were no longer a given, and hospitals were overwhelmed, What happens when we die? recognises the crucial value of such work. “In our society, care professions are not sufficiently appreciated,” the photographer says. “This can be seen, for example, in the salaries. But without these people our society would not function.”
“I am delighted,” Liechti reflects on his inclusion in the award. “The prize is a huge compliment to my photographic work and confirms that the work is understood. This is also very motivating for me to keep working on new projects. Furthermore, the award gives an important platform to the topic and the portrayed people. I hope it brings more understanding for those underrated professions.”
“The prize will certainly help me as a kind of seal of approval,” he continues. “I’m very much looking forward to what else it will bring.” Portrait of Humanity is now open for its fifth edition and welcomes entries until 14 July 2022.