Thursday, September 2, 2010

Essay: After Life

by Claudia Terstappen

A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Susan Sontag

My recent photographic series Roadside Memorials focused on grief and loss expressed through personal shrines created for loved ones killed on the road. It was while working on this series that I also came across many other victims, the dead animals that in some places almost festooned some roads.
With the passing of time has come the ceaseless expansion of roads, of their scope, capacity and use. In parallel, wild life habitat has sometimes been reduced to small corridors of natural forest or bush where the daily routines of native fauna have become more dangerous. Roadsides also attract animals because of the drainage ditches, freshly slashed vegetation and food scraps thrown from cars. Dead wildlife also becomes a food source attracting others and reinforcing hazards.

About three years ago I began to collect images of roadkill, photographing the animals as they were on the road; sometimes flattened, sometimes reshaped in their moment of death. In their stillness I could look at them unhurried, observing closely their size, form, patterns and beauty (or what was left of it). These stark circumstances gave me the opportunity to closely examine a wild animal in contrast to trying to observe a distant or fast moving one. Being dead, their appearance often surprised me, leading me to question their identity and behaviour.

With my images I have sought to create a death mask (akin to those used for identification during the 18th and 19th centuries) to record the characteristics and distortions of the animals as in a true portrait. Accordingly, I have isolated the animal from the distracting complexity of the road surface in the original photograph. The image is also enlarged so that the animal’s presence becomes overpowering and cannot be overlooked.
Imagining the suffering and loss of these animals saddened me. Several times I witnessed that one of a pair had been killed and its mate was still lurking, puzzled by the accident, returning to the dead body, touching it but not understanding what had happened.

People create roadside memorials to express their grief and perhaps also communicate their sorrow to a wider public than they could with a conventional grave. Handwritten notes and personal belongings that symbolize the deceased are carefully positioned on site. The majority of these memorials also show a photograph of the deceased. The photograph plays a crucial role: it makes the deceased a non-interchangeable character and brings them back to life by showing us their face.

My roadkill portraits function in a similar way. They are witness to the animal’s existence and death and make them part of our life. Absence is reversed to presence.

Facing ongoing changes in our environment and a growing population with further demands on shrinking habitats, one wonders how long we will be surrounded by these animals - will they soon be history? Some might argue that the presence of roadkill is a positive indication of the existence of animals. Their very presence means that there are animals around and adequate environmental quality to support them. If there were no roadkill, what would that say about our environment?

My photographs are a place for safekeeping. They keep the visual mementos available and alive, confronting us with loss. Memory is coagulated and preserved in the images that refer to the animal itself, representative of nature and its vulnerability. Photography not only stabilizes our memory but also refreshes memory. It freezes time and helps us to both observe with precision, and look back. It builds a link between the past and the present, the living and the dead, us and our environment.


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