Saturday, 4 December 2010

Bite 3: Walter Schels & Beate Lakotta - Life Before Death

Walter Wegner
age: 81
born: 18th December 1923
first portrait taken: 1st December 2003
died: 13th March 2005

In November 2003 Walter Wegner moved into the hospice. He no longer wanted to be a burden to his lady friend at home. He has brought his electric organ with him, “but it’s hardly worth me practicing any Christmas carols: I’ll be dead by Christmas.” But things turn out differently. He’s still there on New Year’s Eve.

“I came here to die," he says morosely. “So why aren’t I dead yet?”

Wegner lives to see the spring, as well as the following autumn. His partner’s visits become increasingly rare. On Christmas Eve 2004 he plays “Silent Night“ for the others. On a Monday in March 2005 one of the nurses says to him: “You’ve been with us for over a year now. You’ve recovered so well, this is no longer the right place for you. We’re going to have to ask you to move out soon.“ Wegner flourished in the hospice, he is afraid of the residential care home. He asks his partner: “Can I come home?” She refuses.

Walter Wegner dies five days after the conversation with the nurse.

With photographs by Walter Schels and words by Beate Lakotta, the series Life Before Death: Portraits of the Dying (2002-2005) presents diptychs of hospice patients from across northern Germany - one image from before their death, the other soon after.

In a tender coupling of text and image the viewer is introduced to Walter Wegner. An up-close, intimate portrait with defining lighting, combined with a concise, revealing narrative brings Wegner's humanity to the fore.

But these images are not of the same man, surely not. On the left: a dignified, alert and alive man, while on the left, a sleeping face, drained of character and life. The left image is certainly a portrait, but the corpse? Is it not more accurate to see it as a still-life? Perhaps this is too severe, yet the work certainly explores the definition of the portrait, as well as how death is represented in our culture. A culture which often seems to ignore or suppress anything referencing a fate we all must face; "We all know we have to die, but we just can't believe it," Schels remarks.

With a German austerity seen in the work of the Bechers and August Sander, Schels and Lakotta, partners, combine this 'banal' approach with an overwhelming sensitivity, stating the brutal fact of mortality - which Susan Sontag points out is present in all portraits - while simultaneously allowing individual subjects to shine through the space between image and text, having their final say.

Foam Magazine, 'Portrait?', Winter 2008, #17.