Capturing Life and Death

German photographer Walter Schels was once terrified of death, but after embarking on a bizarre project to photograph the dead and dying, he has a new perspective.

Schels believes that its not only odd, but wrong that death is so hidden from view so he decided to shed some light on the reality of people’s final days. The result was a collection of photographs of people in aged care facilities. Alongside the portraits are the stories of the individuals, written by Schels’ partner, Beate Lakotta, who spent time with the subjects in their final days as they shared their thoughts on nearing the end of their lives.

Schels said his entire life he has had a crippling fear of death and of dead bodies after growing up in Munich during the war and being exposed to headless and limbless bodies – he has never forgotten them. It took all of his courage to embark on a project that was going to force him to, once again, come into such close contact with death.

They both reported how terrifying the first shoots were and how reluctant they were to move the bodies from the hospital mattresses for the shots, however later discovered that they would have to reposition the dead in order to get good shots that would reflect the shots they captured before death. As they did more shoots they began to learn what worked best and how to position the bodies, “but one thing you never get used to is the feel of a dead person – it’s always shocking,” she says. “It’s like cement – that cold, that hard, and that heavy” Lakotta said.

But as confronting as photographing the bodies was, what was most shocking for both Schels and Lakotta was the sense of loneliness and isolation they discovered in their subjects during the before-death shoots. Many reported that loved ones became increasingly distant from them because the were refusing to engage with the reality of the situation. The subjects said this made them feel not only isolated, but also hurt. Some subjects were even bitter about how lonely the business of dying had made them feel and for many this was the reason they agreed to participate – to show people the reality of death.

Both Schels and Lakotta felt the experience of being close to so many dying people had changed the way they felt, not only about dying themselves, but about living – and also, how they would support a friend or relative who was nearing the end of their life. Schels also noted that while death never lost its ability to shock, for him, it lost its ability to frighten. He is no longer terrified of dead bodies, and frightened for his future and his imminent death. He remains, as he has long been, an agnostic, having noticed that believers and non-believers alike showed the same fear of the unknown when their time came.

“What I was used to,” said Schels, who has taken hundreds of portraits throughout his career, “was people who smiled for the camera. It’s usually an automatic response. But these people never smiled. They were incredibly serious; and more than that, they weren’t pretending anything any more. People are almost always pretending something, but these people had lost that need. I felt it enabled me as a photographer to get as close as it’s possible to get to the core of a person; when you’re facing the end, everything that’s not real is stripped away. You’re the most real you’ll ever be, more real than you’ve ever been before”.