What goes on when we die, and that will care for us?

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Family portrait of Humanity Series winner Jonathan Liechti’s project is an unflinching look into the institutions that facilitate the particular dying process

“How a culture deals with death is feature of it, ” says Swiss photographer Jonathan Liechti, talking about his Portrait of Mankind Series-winning project What happens when we die?. “In my  environment – in Bern, Switzerland, Christian Reformed – individuals try to avoid the topic. A lot of the work is professionalised and institutionalised. ” 

The professionalisation of death is the focus associated with his series, which files the care workers – physicians, chaplains, undertakers, crematorium staff, sextons – which strive for a dignified grieving process, as well as taking a good unflinching look at the “unpleasant and difficult” topic of demise itself, and the way the relationship to it has been transformed over the course of the pandemic.

© Jonathan Liechti – Family portrait of Humanity 2022 Collection Winner

Liechti’s photographs are stark and medical, avoiding mawkishness or sentimentality; the viewer senses the particular brusqueness and the pressure from the pandemic measures which designed that the dying and their loved ones were often separated from one another, or visits had been strictly limited. One picture shows a wall of labelled urns; others show the hands of the deceased, faces respectfully excluded in the frame, with mortuary workers in PPE proffering a reassuring hand, or carrying the lid of a casket.  

The work, Liechti says, provides a basis from which to start a discussion. “It is an invites to look closer, to develop a far more differentiated understanding and to reflect on the various issues: how do we as a society deal with dying?   What are the consequences of pandemic measures on the dying process? How do we guard the most vulnerable?   Who have works in this field? ”

These topics, uncomfortable because they may be, are indivisible from life itself: death any of humankind’s only ensures. On this basis it is a good apt project for Family portrait of Humanity, an honor that aims to commemorate what unites us by means of difficulty. As a series winner, Liechti’s project was showed at Photograph 22 within Melbourne, and will be exhibited at Indian Photo Festival within November this year.

© Jonathan Liechti – Portrait of Humanity 2022 Series Winner

The project was conceived during the second Covid-19 wave in Nov 2020. Death and declining were inescapable concerns, together increased significantly due to the impact of a new coronavirus strain. Liechti teamed up with journalist Naomi Harnickell to develop an approach to the topic, as well as to secure access to the institutions with whom they eventually worked. After several interviews and photography sessions, they decided that the areas on “the path of the last journey” would constitute the story’s basis.

“When an individual dies, it affects not just their relatives, but an entire group of people who work with loss of life every day, ” Liechti describes. His work shines an essential light on the nature of the work, and the facilitators who provide dignity and compassion during a time of grief. In the context of a period during which normal grieving processes were no longer a given, and private hospitals were overwhelmed, What happens when we die? recognises the crucial associated with such work. “In our society, care professions are not sufficiently appreciated, ” the photographer says. “This is visible, for example , in the salaries. But without these people our society would not function. ”

© Jonathan Liechti – Portrait of Mankind 2022 Series Winner

“I am delighted, ” Liechti reflects on his inclusion within the award. “The prize is a huge compliment to my photographic function and confirms that the work is understood. This  is also very motivating for me to maintain working on new projects. In addition, the award gives a significant platform to the  topic and the portrayed people. I really hope it brings more understanding for those underrated professions. ”

“The prize will certainly assist as a kind of seal of approval, ” he continues. “I’m really much  looking forward to what else it will bring. ” Family portrait of Humanity is now open up for its fifth edition plus welcomes entries until fourteen July 2022.

Portrait of Humanity’s 5th edition   is now open for entries till 14th July 2022.


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