Photographer Walter Schels was terrified of death, so much so he refused to see his mother after she passed away. Upon entering his 70s, Schels finally decided to overcome his fear through a bold, bizarre project – photographing individuals before and directly after their death.
The black and white portraits are a clinical confrontation with the the unknown, the proximity of the lens to subject unflinching and slightly macabre. Images are paired with startlingly frank accounts of the deceased right before their passing, each person dealing with the inevitable in their own way.
Schels and his partner Beat Lakotta began approaching potential individuals at hospices in Berlin and Hamburg, surprised to find few people said no. The pair were on constant alert, at times running out in the middle of the night to shoot before the undertaker would come. Though emotionally draining, Schels recognized that the series became an important epitaph to individuals before they actually died. With family and friends unable to cope with the looming truth, terminally ill patients often feel completely isolated.
‘It’s so good you’re doing this’, Schels quoted a dying man to The Guardian, ‘No one else is listening to me, no one wants to hear or know what it’s really like.’
Schels is no longer terrified of death and now sees avoidance of the issue as a serious problem in contemporary society, people unable to be truly present for loved ones when they need them most. Life Before Death is an attempt to confront our worst fears and perhaps, to see those nearing the end in a more human light. When facing death, we all stop pretending.
‘Everything that’s not real is stripped away,’ he told The Guardian, ‘You’re the most real you’ll ever be, more than you’ve ever been before’.
Name: Jan Andersen (ABOVE)
Born: 21st of February 1978
Died: 14th June 2005, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg
Jan Andersen was 19 when he discovered that he was HIV-positive. On his 27th birthday he was told that he didn’t have much time left: cancer, a rare form, triggered by the HIV-infection. He did not complain. He put up a short, fierce fight – then he seemed to accept his destiny. His friends helped him to personalize his room in the hospice. He wanted Iris, his nurse, to tell him precisely what would happen when he died. When the woman in the room next to him died, he went to have a look at her. Seeing her allayed his fears. He said he wasn’t afraid of death.
‘You’re still here?’, he said to his mother, puzzled, the night he died. “You’re not that well,” she replied. “I thought I’d better stay’.
In the final stages, the slightest physical contact had caused him pain. Now he wants her to hold him in her arms, until the very end. ‘I’m glad that you stayed’.
Name: Klara Behrens (ABOVE)
Born: 2nd December 1920
Died: 3rd March 2004, at Sinus-Hospice, Hamburg
Klara Behrens can tell that she hasn’t got much longer. ‘Sometimes, I do still hope that I’ll get better,’ she says. ‘But then when I’m feeling really nauseous, I don’t want to carry on living. And I’d only just bought myself a new fridge-freezer! If I’d only known…’
It is the last day of February, the sun is shining, the first bluebells are flowering in the courtyard. ‘What I’d really like to do is to go outside, down to the River Elbe. To sit down on the stony bank and put my feet in the water. That’s what we used to do when we were children, when we went to gather wood down by the river. If I had my life over again, I’d do everything differently. I wouldn’t lug any wood around. But I wonder if it’s possible to have a second chance at life? I don’t think so. After all, you only believe what you see. And you can only see what is there. I’m not afraid of death. I’ll just be one of the million, billion grains of sand in the desert. The only thing that frightens me is the process of dying. You just don’t know what actually happens’.
Name: Maria Hai-Anh Tuyet Cao (ABOVE)
Born: 26th August 1951
Died: 15th February 2004, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg
Maria Hai-Anh Tuyet Cao’s experience of dying would doubtless have been very different, had she not absorbed the teachings of the Supreme Mistress Ching Hai. The Mistress says: ‘All that is beyond this world is better than our world. It is better than anything we can or cannot imagine’.
Frau Cao wears the portrait of the Mistress round her neck. Under her guidance, she has already visited the afterlife in meditation. Her call to the next world cannot be far off: her pulmonary alveoli are failing. Yet she appears serene and cheerful.
‘Death is nothing’, says Frau Cao. ‘I embrace death. It is not eternal. Afterwards, when we meet God, we become beautiful. We are only called back to earth if we are still attached to another human being in the final seconds’.
Hai-Anh Cao prepares for this moment every day. She wants to achieve a sense of total detachment at the moment of death.
Name: Michael Föge (ABOVE)
Born: 15th June 1952
Died: 12th February 2003, at Ricam Hospice, Berlin
Michael Föge, tall, athletic and eloquent, was appointed as Berlin’s first Commissioner of Cyclists. He was happy. A hundred guests attended his fiftieth birthday celebration. Soon after, he couldn’t remember his words when he was making a speech.
The doctors discovered a brain tumor. Within a matter of months the tumor had destroyed his speech centre, paralyzed his right arm and the right side of his face. In the hospice, day by day Föge is becoming more sleepy. One day he won’t wake up.
Whilst Michael Föge retained the power of speech, he never talked about his feelings or his inner life. Now he is no longer able to do so. ‘I wonder what is going on inside his head’, his wife asks herself.
Name: Elly Genthe (ABOVE)
Born: 4th August 1919
Died: 11th January 2003, at Ricam Hospice, Berlin
Throughout her life, Elly Genthe has been a tough, resilient woman. She has always managed on her own. Often she has said she would rather die than not be able to take care of herself. That time has now come and she remains undaunted. Full of praise for the hospice and the quality of the care she is receiving, she hopes death will come quickly.
A few days later, she senses her strength is ebbing away. Suddenly she clutches her granddaughter’s hand: ‘Don’t go! I’m suffocating!’ She begs the nurses: ‘Please, breathe for me!’
Elly Genthe needs morphine – a drug secreted by the kidneys – but because her kidneys have been consumed by cancer, her morphine levels fluctuate: sometimes she sleeps all day; and there are moments when she sees little men crawling out of the flower pots – they’ve come to kill her. ‘Get me out of here’, she whispers as soon as anyone holds her hand. ‘My heart will stop beating if I stay here. This is an emergency! I don’t want to die!’
Name: Wolfgang Kotzahn
Born: 19th January 1947
Died: 4th February 2004, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg
There are colorful tulips brightening up the night table. The nurse has prepared a tray with champagne glasses and a cake. It’s Wolfgang Kotzahn’s birthday today. “I’ll be 57 today. I never thought of myself growing old, but nor did I ever think I’d die when I was still so young. But death strikes at any age.”
Six months ago the reclusive accountant had been stunned by the diagnosis: bronchial carcinoma, inoperable. ‘It came as a real shock. I had never contemplated death at all, only life’, says Herr Kotzahn. ‘I’m surprised that I have come to terms with it fairly easily. Now I’m lying here waiting to die. But each day that I have I savor, experiencing life to the full. I never paid any attention to clouds before. Now I see everything from a totally different perspective: every cloud outside my window, every flower in the vase. Suddenly, everything matters’.
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