Interview by Joanna Moorhead for ‘The Guardian’ with Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta how facing death changed how they felt about dying – and living.
German photographer Walter Schels was terrified of death, but felt compelled to take an extraordinary series of portraits of people before and on the day they died. His partner Beate Lakotta recorded the poignant and revealing interviews with the subjects in their final days.
Nothing, it is said, teaches us more about living than dying. But if so, isn’t it odd how little we face up to death? And isn’t it odd that modern societies, which appear so keen to find meaning in the business of living, push death to the periphery, minimising our contact with it and sanitising its impact?
The German photographer Walter Schels thinks it not only odd, but wrong that death is so hidden from view. Aged 72, he’s also keenly aware that his own death is getting closer. Which is why, a few years ago, he embarked on a bizarre project. He decided to shoot a series of portraits of people both before and after they had died. The result is a collection of photographs of 24 people – ranging from a baby of 17 months to a man of 83 – that goes on show in London next week. Alongside the portraits are the stories of the individuals concerned, penned by Beate Lakotta, Schels’ partner, who spent time with the subjects in their final days and who listened as they told her how it felt to be nearing the end of their lives.
Schels and Lakotta work out of a spacious, top-floor flat in Hamburg: the tables, and even the floor, are littered with images from both this series and from the thousands of other shoots Schels has done during a long career taking portraits for some of the world’s leading glossy magazines. But all his life, says Schels, he has had a crippling fear of death, and of dead bodies. “I was brought up in Munich during the war, and one day our house was bombed. I saw many bodies – limbs torn off, heads torn off, terrible things – and I have never forgotten them. Since that day, I was always afraid of dead bodies. Even when my mother died – she was 89 years old, and I’d taken her photograph earlier that very day – I didn’t want to see her after death.”
So it took every ounce of his courage to embark on a project that was going to force him into such close contact with the dead. “I was filled with terror. Sometimes when I was taking pictures of a body I would be loading my camera and I’d keep looking at their face out of the corner of my eye, making sure they really were dead. Once I had a dream in which one of the subjects woke up during the shoot, and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I knew she was dead but I didn’t want to tell her, and in my dream I was thinking, ‘Oh no, how am I going to tell her she’s dead?'”
Logistically, the project was fraught with difficulties. Finding people who were dying was relatively easy – the couple tracked them down through hospices in Hamburg and Berlin. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the people they approached were willing to be included, though a few said no. But a bigger problem, for Schels and Lakotta, was being continuously on standby to go to take pictures. “You’d get a call at 3am and it would be the hospice to say that someone had died, and we’d have to get up straight away and get over there so we could fit in a photo shoot between the relatives arriving and the undertaker coming,” explains Lakotta, 42. “It was relentless, and very draining emotionally.” Schels agrees: “We’d come back here in the evening, after a day when we’d maybe been to a funeral and shot pictures of a dead body, and we’d sit here crying and drinking whisky and wine.” Both agree they couldn’t possibly have completed the project alone. “There were times when it seemed such a strange, unbelievable thing to be doing,” says Lakotta. “We could only talk to one another about it.”
Photographing the bodies was a challenge. “The first shoot was terrifying: we were so afraid that we just crept in and photographed the body in profile, lying on the bed, without moving it at all,” says Schels. “But when we compared the before-and-after pictures, we realised it didn’t work – we hadn’t captured the face in a way that mirrored it in its before-death state.” Over the next few weeks the pair experimented to overcome the problems of rigor mortis and the effects of gravity on a dead face, until they came up with an answer. “We realised we had to sit the subject up, as they had been in the before-death shot,” says Lakotta. She went, she says, from being someone who could hardly bear to touch a dead body to someone who thought nothing of moving a body around and coaxing it into a sitting pose to get a good face-on shot. “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.”
But, horrifying though photographing the bodies was, more shocking still for Schels and Lakotta was the sense of loneliness and isolation they discovered in their subjects during the before-death shoots. “Of course we got to know these people because we visited them in the hospices and we talked about our project, and they talked to us about their lives and about how they felt about dying,” explains Lakotta. “And what we realised was how alone they almost always were. They had friends and relatives, but those friends and relatives were increasingly distant from them because they were refusing to engage with the reality of the situation. So they’d come in and visit, but they’d talk about how their loved one would soon be feeling better, or how they’d be home soon, or how they’d be back at work in no time. And the dying people were saying to us that this made them feel not only isolated, but also hurt. They felt they were unconnected to the people they most wanted to feel close to, because these people refused to acknowledge the fact that they were dying, and that the end was near.”
Some of the subjects, says Schels, were bitter about how lonely the business of dying had made them feel – for some, this was why they agreed to take part in the project. “Some of the dying said, ‘It’s so good you’re doing this – it’s really important to show what it’s like. No one else is listening to me, no one wants to hear or know what it’s really like.'”
Both Schels and Lakotta feel the experience of being close to so many dying people has changed how they feel not only about dying themselves, but how they feel about living – and also, how they would support a friend or relative through terminal illness. “I know now how important it is to be there, or at least to offer to be there, as much as possible – and to not be afraid of asking questions, and of listening to the answers,” says Lakotta. Schels, meanwhile, says that while death never loses its ability to shock, it has – for them – lost its ability to frighten. He is no longer terrified of dead bodies, and nor is he frightened of the future. He remains, as he has long been, an agnostic, having noticed that believers and non-believers alike showed the same fear of the unknown that awaited them.
Most importantly, the couple feel they know the importance of making the time they have left count. And though we are discussing a most sombre subject, there is much laughter: both Schels and Lakotta have a wonderful ability to find pathos and humour in many of their experiences. There was the man who refused to die (he was eventually told by the hospice that he would have to move back home; but when he called his girlfriend, she told him she had given all his possessions away … he finally died a few days after realising that he was on a one-way street, and there really was no going back). Another patient, a woman, had been disappointed by almost everything, all her life. “She proudly told me that her funeral would be packed, with at least 85 people there,” says Lakotta. “But I went to it, and there were only about 30 of us … and I thought, this was inevitable, really.”
“What I was used to,” says Schels, who has taken hundreds of portraits during 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”.