Mary Caparitia Bush is ready to go to the party. She is wearing a stunning black sequin dress with a pattern of white leaves. Lace gloves and a pink hat with a flower complement the look. Mary’s hair and make-up is done and she seems very content with her appearance. What party is she going to? According to Isaiah Owens, funeral director in Harlem, New York, the party is taking place in heaven. He has dressed Mary because she couldn’t do it herself. She died in February 2004. Mary is not the only person Isaiah assists in getting ready. He makes sure everyone wears a fabulous dress or suit for their journey to paradise.
Over the course of one year (2003-2004) Elizabeth Heyert photographed the deceased members of a Baptist community in Harlem. Heyert took her photos at the funeral parlour of Isaiah Owens, one of the few places where the old tradition of festively dressing up the dead lives on. Isaiah Owens shared the stories of these people with Elizabeth. In this way Elizabeth learned about their lives, and it helped her to convey the humanity of her subjects in the photos. The project was named The Travelers and consists of 31 portraits. The Travelers is currently on view at Mediamatic, as part of the Ik R.I.P. exhibition. A few hours before the opening of Ik R.I.P on the 30th of January, I spoke with Elizabeth about the project and her experience of photographing dead people.
The story of the dead
All of The Travelers photographs are accompanied by the name of the person in the portrait, as well as their date and place of birth and death. Significantly, the individual stories of each photographed person are absent from the work, in spite of their value to Elizabeth. I asked Elizabeth why she didn’t make them part of the project. Elizabeth explains that it was mainly an issue of privacy. Although the stories were important for her to be able to establish intimacy with the subjects, they were not really meant for public consumption. They form the narrative of a community that Elizabeth is not a member of. She wanted to be careful not to be presumptuous and act like she belongs to this community. Therefore she did not claim the stories as part of her project.
Moreover, she found that including the date and place of birth and death was already very effective in triggering the imagination. These simple facts indicate that the majority of the 31 portrait-sitters grew up in the south of the United States and moved north. This information alone calls upon a whole history. Elizabeth identifies it as the story of the 20th century, when black people took the journey from the south of the US to Harlem, in search of a better life. It was the only way for them to escape from poverty, even though the situation in Harlem wasn’t perfect either. It was a way they could take control of their lives.
In what way are the people in the photographs in control over their death? For instance, did they choose the beautiful clothing themselves before they died? Elizabeth tells me that there are many different cases. Sometimes it was indeed possible for someone to pick out an outfit, if they were sick and knew they were going to die soon. But often the relatives would decide on what their loved one was going to wear. Or in the case of young James Earl "Jay Moe" Jones, all his friends went out and bought the clothes for him. For everyone involved it was always important to dress up the dead, even if there wasn’t a lot of money to spend. It is a traditional Baptist belief that you have to dress up to see Jesus. Elizabeth points out that some of the women are wearing a white burial robe that looks very much like a bridal gown. This is part of the tradition for women to present yourself to Jesus as his bride.
Despite the fact that the surviving relatives were very involved in how their dead family member looks, Elizabeth never got directly in touch with them. She wanted to be careful not to intrude in the community, since she is not part of their neighbourhood, their religion and their race. She was also very aware of the loss that the family was experiencing at the time when she was taking her pictures. She felt that the last thing the family should deal with is a lady who is doing a photo project. So Elizabeth took her photographs early in the morning, before the family arrived for the service. Funeral director Isaiah Owens approached the family the evening before, to ask for their consent. If they agreed they signed a contract. Because dead people don’t have portrait rights, it was important for Elizabeth to make these arrangements with the family. Afterwards, she often received positive responses from them. They were so happy to have a photo of the person they loved and lost.
Photographing the dead
Elizabeth tells me that when she first heard about the funeral parlour of Isaiah Owens, the practice of dressing up the dead was a completely new phenomenon to her. Once she decided to take photographs, she thought a lot about how to make portraits of people. In portraiture the photographer normally wants to bring out the character of the sitter. This is done not only with the help of light and positioning and such, but also by establishing a relationship with them. Elizabeth wanted to bring this same approach to photographing dead people. She wanted to get a sense of who this person really was. It was difficult at first, because they all looked so dead! There were a lot of details surrounding the person that were distracting from who they really were, such as the coffin and the flowers. Elizabeth took all of this away and photographed them simply behind a black background. She asked herself the question: can you still see the humanity?
I ask Elizabeth how working on this project affected her relationship with death. I imagine that perhaps she became more comfortable with the subject after being so close to so many dead people. But Elizabeth answers that this was not the case, because she was also exposed to the horrors of death. She saw the people before they were dressed, without wigs and make-up and she smelled their dead bodies. So after the project was over, death seemed worse to her than before. Elizabeth shares with me that three years prior to the project she lost both her parents in a short time span. As horrible as that experience was, she is glad she didn't witness this ugly side of death in the case of her parents.
Elizabeth was deeply affected by The Travelers for about a year afterwards. Every time she photographed someone, she really felt the loss of that person. She could never communicate with them or show them the picture she took. It made her grasp the finality of death.
The Travelers in the Ik R.I.P. exhibition
The Ghana coffins in the Ik R.I.P. exhibition intrigue Elizabeth. Just like The Travelers, they emphasize a different aspect of death: the idea of the burial as a celebration of life. So far The Travelers has been exhibited in shows where the project was treated with much reverence and awe. The party aspect and the fabulous ways of dressing up have not been highlighted much until now.
The Mediamatic exhibition Ik R.I.P. is part of an ongoing series about self-representation. The Travelers may be understood as the representation of a community whose members have passed. I ask Elizabeth if she agrees that her work address the notion of (self-)representation. She tells to me that the self-representation aspect was her main reason for wanting to be in the Mediamatic show. Elizabeth doesn’t want The Travelers to be exhibited in shows that are just about death. For her, The Travelers is a project about a community with a strong identity that she wants to represent with her photos. She explains that the community itself doesn’t exist anymore. It is part of that 20th century story of the past, which has its roots in the south of the United States. In the years after finishing the project (2004) Harlem changed a lot. The United States is a different place as well. With Barack Obama as the first African-American president, Elizabeth is confident that this story is over and will never return again. Isaiah Owens is still in the funeral business. But his way of working is a dying art now. The kind of religious Baptist burial that is portrayed in The Travelers is becoming rarer and rarer. Most people want a more modern funeral.
Other projects by Elizabeth
Finally, I speak with Elizabeth about her most recent project. She just finished The Narcissists, a photo series of triptych portraits taken with a two way mirror, like the kind they use in a police station to study suspects. Elizabeth isolated people in a room where they were forced to look at themselves in the mirror for fifteen minutes. As they watched themselves they looked straight into the lens of the camera that was installed behind the mirror. People reacted very differently to the situation. Some of them cried, others took their clothes off. Elizabeth didn’t tell them what to do. She plans to display the pictures lifesize, to ensure that every subtle emotion will be seen.
The Narcissists is the third in a series of projects where Elizabeth photographs without directing the emotions of the people in the pictures. Her first project The Sleepers registered sleeping people. Elizabeth tried to capture the inner emotions of these people who were not aware of the camera because they were unconscious. The people photographed for The Travelers obviously weren’t able to respond to her either. The Narcissists captures people who are responding to themselves instead of to a photographer. Usually in portraiture, there is a relation between the photographer and the sitter. In these projects Elizabeth investigates what happens when she removes herself from this relationship.
For more information on The Travelers and Elizabeth Heyert’s other projects, visit her website. Here you can also find another interview in which Elizabeth discusses The Travelers with Stacey D'Erasmo.