Georg Röggla on a new and different perspective of dying

Georg RögglaI have seen many people die in the nearly three decades I have worked as a clinician. I was, however, confronted with a totally different perspective of dying while attending a symposium “noch mal leben/vivere ancora [to live again]”  on palliative care at the free university of Bozen/Bolzano in South Tyrol in Italy on February 29th, 2010.

The photographer Walter Schels and the journalist Beate Lakotta asked terminally ill people if they could accompany them during their last days.  All of them agreed to be photographed shortly before and immediately after death.  The result is a collection of photographs of 24 people ranging from a baby of 17 months to a man of 83. Alongside the portraits were the stories of the individuals.
At the symposium, Schels told the audience that photographing the bodies was a challenge: “The first shoot was terrible: we were so afraid that we just photographed the body in profile, lying on the bed, without moving it at all, but when we compared the before-and-after pictures, we realised that the portrait was no good. We had not captured the face the way we had before death.” “We realised we had to sit the subject up like in the before-death photograph,” said Lakotta. She added that she changed from someone who could hardly bear to touch a dead body to someone who thought nothing of moving a body around and putting it into a sitting pose to get the photographically best position.

Both told the audience that they got to know these people because they visited them in the hospices and talked about their project, and the patients  talked to them about their lives and about how they felt about dying, Lakotta added: “We were overwhelmed by the  loneliness of the dying.  Even if they had friends and relatives which would come and visit, they’d talk about how the patient would soon be feeling better, or how they’d go home soon. And the dying people were saying to us that this made them feel even more isolated.”

I have never seen anything like this yet. The portraits of the dying people before and after death were impressive, and I thought that they were photographed with great respect for the dignity of these patients. Many physicians looked more touched by the photos than by real dying patients in their institutions.

Georg Röggla is an associate editor with the BMJ.