Shooting Death: using insightful photography in death studies

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An approach to ritualised continuing bonds: insightful photography

Studying how people maintain relationships with their dead provides an understanding of how many now make sense of their confrontation with death. Researching how people creatively ritualise these continuing bonds will provide valuable insights into meaning-making processes in times when religious beliefs and practices are often no longer self-evident in our dealing with death and our perceptions of an afterlife. There is an urgent need to map the field of ritualised continuing bonds: to identify the moments they take, the places they use, the spaces they create and the role of objects that link the dead and the living. Moreover, we need to develop appropriate and accommodating methodology to do so.

The concept of continuing bonds was first introduced by Klass, Silverman and Nickman (1996) as a new model of grief. Although it was picked up by others in the multi-disciplinary field of death studies, its approach is still rather confined by a grief and bereavement discourse. It is this confinement that needs to be broken down in order to use the full potential of the continuing bonds concept. This focus on grief has resulted in an interview-oriented approach where the emphasis is generally on what the bereaved have to say about the relationship they maintain with a deceased loved one. Even when material aspects – like graves, linking objects to the deceased including photographs – are considered, just how they are ritualised is often marginalised in research. This is partly due to the neglect of a keystone in fieldwork research on ritual where, next to interviews, observations are a necessary tool in data collection. My aim is to develop a refined observation tool for the study of ritual in death in general and of continuing bonds in particular.

A ritual approach of continuing bonds demands a shift in perspective and a change of subject to pose with theoretical and methodological challenges forcing us to take material objects, their links and their agency, symbols and spaces much more seriously. I want to introduce practicing photography (‘shooting’) as an observation method and a research tool. With the act of photographing at its core, observations can be intensified and fine-tuned. What ‘shooting’ does – it documents, reveals, validates, publicises, mystifies, constructs, dramatises, violates, (dis)embodies, complicates – has been described by Ronald Grimes (2006), but his formal description needs to be operationalised to be useful as a research method.

This project would lead to research initiated photo essays – sets or series of photographs that work together as a narrative that can be enormously valuable when used for reflective purposes throughout the research cycle. The insightful aspect of photography not only refers to the end product (the photo essay), but also to the process: preparation, the actual shooting and to its presentation. The preparatory phase – making a photographic brief – will really tune the scholar to the subject of research, will define all aspects and break them down into observable ritual elements. During the shoot the researcher becomes a practicing participant observer. In a direct personal sense, through the viewer of your camera, you need to recognise, organise and select. You have to anticipate, have a strong focus and frame it. The way photo essays are presented is an important aspect of how it is interpreted by an audience: selection anchors meaning and coherence. It sharpens our perceptions of the reality observed and the representation of it.

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