Why I'm Making Art About Death

When people hear the word ‘grief’, many things come to mind in addition to bereavement, so a lot of people have asked me why I’m focusing only on death in my new project Grief Landscapes. As someone who is deeply interested in people’s stories, and who tends to want to include everyone in everything I do, drawing a line around the project sometimes feels hard. I know there is a lot of pain out there, and I think that pain is often lessened by sharing our stories of loss, no matter what those losses are. 

I’m restricting the scope of the project because the number of stories out there about death alone are overwhelming, but also because I’m deeply curious about how different people learn to live with the specific permanence of death. Maybe it’s also because I’m now in my forties—isn’t that the typical time when we turn to thoughts of the second half of our lives and what’s inevitably in front of us?

 Ball, 2001

Ball, 2001

It’s interesting though, because when I look back at many of my projects, I’ve noticed that I often make a new body of work to deal with specific losses and changes in my life. The first photography project I ever did was documenting old playgrounds in New York City in the fall of 2001, shortly after September 11, when loss and grief had enveloped the city. I didn’t have a direct connection to anyone who died in the terrorist attacks, but it was impossible to be living in New York then and not absorb in some way the impact of those immense losses. In the shadow of all that, I found myself drawn towards documenting these old metal play structures—geometric jungle gyms, a lone merry-go-round, skyscraper slides. 

 Slide 2, 2001

Slide 2, 2001

I loved those structures because they reminded me of my childhood, which was comforting, and I was also at that point having a quarter-life crisis. I was in my late 20’s, confused about what I was doing with my life, and although it probably sounds naive, it was possibly the first time I was really confronting what it meant to have things change around me so drastically. The inevitability of change ended up becoming literal through the project, as much of the equipment that I photographed was torn down only weeks after I took the photos.

I didn’t set out to do a project about loss, but it ended up becoming one, even if the connection was oblique. The children who ended up in the photographs were cut off, facing away from the camera, or running ghost-like through the frame. The one little girl whose face you see is in a domed cage-like jungle gym and looks a little scared, with an adult figure in black behind her. I ended up calling the project This Playground Closes at Dusk, based on the signs posted at the entrances to the playgrounds.

 Child, 2001

Child, 2001

In a larger sense I guess I’m continually drawn to making work about what it means to deal with change and loss on multiple levels, and how those changes transform us and our relationship to the world. And I find myself wondering whether one has an easier time dealing with change if you’ve already lived through a specific type of grief about the ultimate change: the disappearance of someone who was in the world, and then wasn’t.

I don’t know where this project will go, and who knows? Maybe there will come a point where I will open Grief Landscapes up to other categories of loss. But for now, I’m finding that there is so much variety and diversity in people’s stories of bereavement, and enough challenge in capturing each unique account, that I’ll have my hands full for a while.

Leave a comment to let me know what you think about the relationship between death and other kinds of loss in your life. Has experiencing the death of someone close to you made it easier to deal with change and loss subsequently?