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A closer look 10 Sep 2013

Interview with Walter Schels

The German duo Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta collaborate in 2004 for the making of a series of unique images, entitled «Life Before Death», launched in Germany. Terrified by death, the German photographer Walter Schels, born in 1936, decided to realize this minimal series of portraits of people, before and after their death. His partner, the journalist Beate Lakotta, born in 1965, recorded touching interviews from their last instants. They have accompanied terminal patients and interviewed them during the last weeks of their lives. Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta visited palliative care institutions in Northern Germany. They took portraits of people aged 17 to 83. Each photograph is accompanied by descriptions and anecdotes explaining what they think of death, of the project or of their illness.

All his life, Walter Schels has been extremely afraid of death and dead bodies. The realization of this project allowed him to get rid of this trauma that was driving him to avoid until then everything that reminded him of death. This is an introspective photo series that makes us ponder intensely upon our own existence and the inevitable step that is death.


Artsper: Walter, could you please present yourself to our readers?
I was born in 1936. I was 9 when the Second World War ended. I have experienced numerous air raids and have seen many bodies disfigured by the war. I was frightened by death and by coffins. All my life, I have avoided seeing dead bodies, including those of my parents. In 1974, I started to take photos of births for a news magazine. The faces of newborn babies seemed to me, most of the time, very similar to those of old people.  I cannot stop thinking that every new life inevitably ends up in death. It was this experience that awoke my interest in the face and the fate of a person. So I became a portrait photographer.

A: How did you get the idea for the «Life Before Death» series? And how did you get to collaborate with the journalist Beate Lakotta?
Beate Lakotta and I had been together for 8 years, and there was a 30-year difference between us. Statistically, I should have been the one who died first. Then, we talked a lot about this. All the long talks we had about death scared us. Beate is a journalist and she works for the Spiegel News Magazine. She has written a lot about psychology, medicine and different diseases, an these are some of the subjects that interest me and that I have been photographing for years now. So we decided together to take this opportunity and take portraits of people who resided in palliative care institutions, before and after their death. I hoped to make my fear go away by doing this project that confronted me to death every day. I have got to a moment in my life when I’m old enough to think of my own death. So it was obvious to me that I needed to wrap things up by doing a project such as «Life Before Death».

A: The style of this photo series is close to documentary, with its minimal pieces; why did you make such a choice for this project?
I wanted the portraits of the deceased people to be as beautiful as the portraits taken while they were still alive. The documentary style seemed to be the best way to emphasize the change of the faces. My intention was not that of passing my fear to the public. So it was important for me to take portraits that convey a certain dignity, in order to reduce the fear of death that we all have. The first portraits I took were so frightening that I had to overcome my fear of this big phenomenon. And the result was photographing these faces like a documentary while sticking to my minimal and refined photographic style.

A: Could you tell us more about how you realized the project?
We started in December 2002, in an institution in Berlin. We just wanted to know if someone was ready to collaborate with us for photographs of faces before and after death. But we couldn’t stop there, and we went on in January and did not go back home in Hamburg. After developing the films, we saw the results, and they were very impressive. We decided then to continue in other Hamburg institutions. And we photographed our last subject in May 2005, three years after taking their first portrait while they were still alive.

A: Working with death can be intense and difficult, did you impose any limits for this series?
We’ve photographed 35 people, this was the only limit…

A: What are the artists that influence you?
There are no particular photographers that inspire me. There are so many photographers that I admire and I would not like to compare myself to them.

A: Could you explain to us the role of the texts that come with the photographs?
If there is no information about the lives of these people, we seem to be left alone to interpret all sorts of meanings in the portrait we are looking at. It is only through the text that presents a part of the biography, that one can get into close contact with the faces they are looking at. The text gives us a clearer idea and a true meaning (much closer to reality) of the portraits of these strangers.

A: How would you define your project?
We wanted to confront our own fear of death. As a portrait photographer, taking photos of people, from newborns to elderly people, getting to the last phase, death, seems like a natural step. The project is, somehow, a way of approaching our own fate.

A: How did the first exhibition of «Life Before Death» go? What were the reactions of the public and the media?
Our first exhibition took place at the Museum of Health and Hygiene in Dresden, one of the biggets art and science museums in Germany. The show presented about 50 photos (1mX1m), the two portraits, before and after death. This first show had more than 50.000 visitors in only 6 weeks. We’ve had shows in Germany and abroad (London, Lisbon, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, Vienna, Israel, Tokyo, Montréal, etc.). The public and the media reactions were surprisingly positive.

A: After having worked on such a project, are you still interested in exploring this theme?
No, one project is enough…

A: How did you choose the models? Did the people accept easily to be photographed for «Life Before Death»?
The personnel of the institutions recommended to us people that they thought might accept to be photographed for this type of project. Most of the people we shot accepted for several reasons. First, they said they wanted to leave a trace of themselves after their death. Then, they wanted the public to become aware of the work in the institutions they were in and how important these institutions are. I showed them some of my books of portraits of newborn babies and elderly people, and they loved my work. So they really trusted me for taking their portrait, and making it look as beautiful as possible. Only a few people refused, because in the end their faces had changed very much because of the illness and the stress.

A: Was there a person in particular that impressed you?
We had, of course, many participants in the project, but one of them was a colleague of mine than I had known for many years, Heiner Schmitz. All my models had a strong effect on me, each of them in their own way. So I can’t say who impressed me the most. They are all of equal importance.

A: Do you remember a certain situation from the time you were realizing the project?
There are too many memories and too many stories, too many things I could tell you about, but I don’t think I have the time to share all this here and now.

A: How do you relate to death?
We all know we are going to die one day. This project had a strong impact on me, I have gotten rid of my fear of dead bodies and I learned to appreciate everyday life more intensely.

A: Is it possible to purchase one of the photos from the “Life Before Death” project?
The photographs from the “Life Before Death”  series are not for sale, they are too personal, private and intimate. This is why we only show them in museums and other cultural spaces, and not in public places such as shopping malls, parks, etc. There is a book about the project that is for sale (for the moment available only in German) that contains the portraits as well as all the interviews and the general information. It would be wonderful to have the opportunity to bring the show to France in the near future.

A : What do you think of the Artsper Platform?
I love the concept of the Artsper Platfrom, and the site is really good. I think it’s a really efficient way of making art accessible to everyone.


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