Staring death in the face

'We can't handle death? Why should we be able to?' Tom Lubbock on a challenging exhibition at the National Museum of Photography

When people say, as they will, that for us death is the great taboo, I sometimes think: well, at least we've got one thing right. We can't handle death? Why should we be able to? Or rather, who is this "we"? The death taboo problem is always seen from the point of view of the bereaved, something they need to sort out. It takes "us" as the potential mourners - never as the potential corpses. But it's the corpses who suffer the real outrage; they're the ones who've died, after all. The living will handle the situation somehow, and generally go on living. But much good their solemn obsequies, fond memories and healing processes will do us dead.

True, the dead aren't around to complain. But even in prospect one can feel resentment. The rubric on the Donor Card, "I want someone to live after my death", seems amazingly ungrudging. The very opposite, I don't want anyone to live after my death, might be a more candid declaration. And if the survivors insist on surviving, then a stunned silence, an embarrassed averting of the gaze, is the least you might ask of them. An evasion of the dead, often seen as a taboo to be overcome, may be only a proper recognition of what, dead, you could well want.

"The Dead" is the name of a show at Bradford's National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. It has work by 28 photographers from many countries, most of it very recent - there's been a lot of death stuff lately - though some archive material is included. Its subject is our attitudes to the dead, to their loss and their remains. Its images are often dismaying, sometimes shocking. Its general thought is that we'd do well to face these matters more directly.

Again, though, the viewpoint is partial. It takes the part of the living. The dead are the other lot, those we have such problematic attitudes to. We're addressed primarily as people who have the dead on our hands, not as people who might be dead ourselves. But looking at these images, it's well to take the view from the dead too.

The exhibition keeps its focus narrow, strictly post-mortal. Death's occasions and dramas - the public stories of war, disease, murder - are minimally represented.The dead come at us head on. And since it's pictures we're dealing with, it becomes a problem about looking. Is it tolerable to look? Is it decent to look? Is it a duty?

The camera does curious things with corpses. Rather than stealing souls, it puts them back. The photo's instant stillness suspends questions of animation to catch a look that might almost be alive. Max Jourdan finds fully dressed figures in Palermo catacombs, crumbling a little but carrying on. Annet van der Voort shows preserved heads in anatomical specimen jars, looking not dead so much as awaiting birth. Louis Jammes presents the contents of Sarajevo body bags as solemn Gothic statuary. All borderline cases. Rudolph Schafer's gallery of morgue portraits couldn't be more provoking in the way they wear those unresolved, transitional expressions, where you can't but see some tentative signs of life. The intimacy here is a little disquieting, but in the end friendly.

But now put yourself in the corpse's place. We living may want to keep our dead half-alive, half with us, friends - but do I, dead, desire these imaginative attentions? Do I want strange life to be read into my flaccid or embalmed muscles, to become the plaything of other's fictions? To be dead is always to be spoken of behind one's back. The bereaved "want to talk". The deceased, with no part in this conversation, might prefer total anonymity.

There's much work too on the business of mortuaries, their grisly instruments and operations, bodies matter-of-factly opened up, greying skin, bloody sinks, a bin full of shredded tax forms used for stuffing. In a sequence of pictures Krass Clement follows his mother's old body as she dies in a hospital bed, as it's stripped, autopsied, sewn up and finally fed into a furnace. This is pretty strong. Why am I looking at these "forbidden" things? (Why are they?) So as to be disturbed by them? So as to stop being disturbed by them? To fully face and fully accept physical facts of death?

But here, too, the body's depressing fate signifies differently if you think of it as your own. The wish to have one's corpse cased in high explosive and blown to bits off the face of the earth isn't one I wholly share, but I can understand it. Once you've gone, you might as well vanish on the instant, remove yourself utterly from the land of the living and its prying eyes. It may benefit the surviving, as a way of "coming to terms", to outstare their recoil from post-mortem operations. But the contrary impulse to look away needn't just be queasiness, it respects a natural desire of the dead to disappear.

"The Dead" offers some singular memorials, too. From Nobuyoshi Araki, a picture sequence of rather disgusting looking dishes prepared by his dying wife: the first half (in colour) shows those eaten before her death, the second half (in gelid black-and-white) those frozen and eaten after it. Belinda Whiting does an early reading book, using simple words and a large sans serif typeface, alternating with family album photos, to give a child-like account of her daughter's short life and death aged three; the naivety doesn't read false, but as though adult language had been knocked out of her by grief. Thomas Wrede stages a remarkable trouvaille: images of the impact marks left on glass by birds flying unwillingly into windows, ghostly but recognisable birdlike forms made of dust and blood - beaks and feathers register clearly - and magnified enormously.

Photography has often been drawn to ghosts, but as for any afterlife, the possibility is absolutely excluded in " The Dead" - except in the surrogate form of being remembered or preserved by the living. But the idea should be entertained, if only because it could be a way of picturing the missing side of the story, the point of view of the dead; a way of identifying ourselves with them also. We can only imagine ourselves dead by imagining ourselves slightly alive, albeit infinitely remote from all we were. Some sort of spook might allow this position to be represented, and it needs to be. Otherwise the dead become just figments of the living, involuntary characters in their stories, and our duties to the dead are only duties to ourselves.

'The Dead' is at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford (01274 727488) to 7 January 1996

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