Credit: Matthias Wurz
“The idea came to me when my mother died – she was 89,” Walter Schels’ thoughts rested for a moment, his eyes glanced at the audience and then smiled gently. The 73-year-old award-winning German photographer, dressed in all-black and his camera hanging casually from his left shoulder as he speaks.
“Unlike my sister, I could not get myself to stay the night when, as it turned out, she passed away. But I had photographed her before I left that evening.” You could not help but to be moved; and yet Schels’ inability to confront his own fear about dying led to his most remarkable project: photographing faces of people nearing the end of their lives, and then shortly after they passed away. It were these photographs that deservedly earned him the second prize of the World Press Photo Award in 2004.
Walter Schels and Spiegel’ science editor Beate Lakotta – now Schels’ wife – published this remarkable collection of short biographies, their illnesses and consequently the circumstances of death, enriched by Schels’ breathtaking vivid black-and-white photographs. The book, entitled Noch mal Leben vor dem Tod. Wenn Menschen sterben, suggests entirely different view of dying, or rather living without illusions or pretense.
It is, apparently, not only a comfort to those whose live is about to end, but also to relatives and friends. But Schels’ photographs express the unspeakable for those who remain left behind – and many were drawn to the Stadmuseum Graz on Nov 3, 2009 to see Walter Schels’ work. The museum’s director, Otto Hochreiter, is responsible for securing this short but nevertheless powerful exhibition, extraordinary in its simplistic concept and design – an abridged version of the book, and in a way the attempt of breaking a taboo of not talking about death in Western society.
For the opening, however, we find ourselves just outside the the exhibition hall on the second level. The audience of about 100 followed with great tension the photographer’s talk, but you could feel the impatience from some evidently eager to look at the work of art behind the closed doors. But Schels made me understand his fear of death is when talks about his childhood in Germany.
“After the second World War had ended, my grandmother was missing. So, I joined my grandfather to look for her, among the dead.” His hands movements are lively, and his white almost shoulder-long hair twirled. “So I saw many dead bodies or its parts at that time. And there were many coffins, and my grandfather used to open them to see if his wife was inside one of them. That is when I became fearful of dying. But at my age now, that moment has come much closer.”
More to follow soon!