‘Staff at the Harlem funeral parlour gave Daphne a chiffon scarf and lace gloves to hide her scars, bruises and needle marks’.
This shot of a woman called Daphne Jones was taken at a funeral parlour in Harlem, New York, on the day she was buried. Daphne’s story was tragic. She died from Aids at the age of 54, after spending much of her life as a sex worker and crack addict. Her sons had to be bussed to the funeral from prison. One of them died six months later, at the age of 22. He got into a knife fight a few weeks after leaving prison.
This Harlem funeral home maintains the old-style African American Baptist tradition of elaborately dressing up bodies in preparation for what they believe to be the journey to paradise. I was deeply moved by the idea of death being an occasion for which you put on your finest.
It was October 2003, and I had recently lost both my parents. They died within four months of each other. I was thinking about how we perceive the dead, how strange and painful it is to no longer detect the humanity in those we once loved. I decided to make postmortem portraits of people – not as corpses, but as human beings. This meant photographing my dead subjects in the same way I would photograph living ones, recapturing the qualities that made them human.
Most of the people I photographed at the funeral home had been members of a vibrant church community, supported by family and friends. Daphne was an exception. When I arrived, she looked neglected and emaciated. Her nylon stockings bagged on her skinny legs and she had a livid knife scar on her neck. This gave me a dilemma: do I take a “true” portrait of Daphne? Such a shot would be different from any of the others in my series.
At the start of each session at the funeral parlour, I had to fight the urge to run away
When I first framed the photo, I saw a distressing portrait: a skeletal-looking woman with bruises, needle marks and scars. Then I tilted the camera and cropped out her legs, which dramatically changed the portrait. But I still was not at peace with it. After going back and forth, I eventually decided to photograph Daphne as if life had been kinder to her.
I softened the lighting, which helped to conceal signs of illness. One of the funeral home staff found a chiffon scarf and lace gloves to cover her neck and hands, and we added those glittering earrings. Most importantly, I asked for her head to be gently tilted so she looked graceful and at peace. As with many eulogies, I created a portrait of someone as I thought she might like to be remembered, rather than a memento of struggle and misfortune.
This series was extremely challenging. I was working in cramped, badly lit conditions – under huge pressure to get it right, as the subject would be buried shortly. There could be no do-overs. It was emotionally trying, too. I had never seen a dead body before I started all this. Now I was regularly in the presence of death – with all its smells and ugliness, its evidence of illness and suffering. At the start of each session, I had to fight the urge to run away. But as things went on, I would lose myself in the process.
I felt as if I got to know Daphne intimately. I spent three very concentrated, very private hours with her, observing, learning her story, seeing how her face changed in different light, trying to do the best I could for her, sharing her last hours on Earth and trying to give the story of her complicated life a good ending.
A few days later, I was looking at the contact sheets in the lab and it struck me – the fact that I would never be able to show Daphne her photo. I felt waves of sadness, not dissimilar to mourning. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I began my project wondering about how the life and vibrancy drained from people after they died. With Daphne it was the opposite. Stripping away the signs of her hard life revealed the beautiful, vibrant woman she might have been.
Interview by Hannah Gal. Elizabeth Heyert’s The Outsider is published by Damiani Books.