On 22 January 2020, Dr Elizabeth Reeder, Amy Shea and Dr Naomi Richards ran their second ‘Death Writes’ symposium, this time with a focus on images. The symposium – open to the public – was held at the stunning Glasgow Women’s Library and supported by the University of Glasgow’s Arts Lab funding and the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group.
We had 40 participants attend the half day workshop. There was a huge variety of participants: creative writers; practitioners from end of life care; people working in the funeral industry; and academics and doctoral students from different disciplines across the University of Glasgow.
Feedback from the day was phenomenally positive, with participants generally appreciative of being given dedicated time and space to collectively discuss and think creatively about death, dying and bereavement. Many of the participants were working on projects – novels, creative non-fiction, poetry collections, memoirs – which directly speak to this theme, and this symposium was designed to inspire them and generate new ideas, connections and insights. Here are some select comments from the day:
“this is a highlight in my schedule, please keep doing what you’re doing”
“it was a very good day and I’m leaving it with a wealth of ideas and emotions”
“I enjoyed the day so much! The conversation. The stimulation. I have come away with so many ideas. I feel energised!!”
“Excellent afternoon. I was fully engaged and stimulated throughout.”
In light of such an overwhelming positive response, we hope to be able to run further Death Writes symposia in the future. To find out the latest, follow us on twitter @DeathWrites1
The day began with a keynote presentation from Celine Marchbank, a British photographic artist based in London. She presented two bodies of her photographic work. The first was images from her first book, Tulip, the story of the last year of her mother’s life in images, publishing in 2016. The second set of images was from her new book, A Stranger in my Mother’s Kitchen, which is an exploration of the grieving process following her mother’s death, to be published in 2020. Celine spoke eloquently about her experience of caring for her mother while she was dying, her grieving process, and the origin or personal meaning behind the photographs she took.
Following Celine’s inspirational keynote, the day took on a workshop format. There were four workshops on offer, all using images of death, dying and grief in different ways.
Workshop 1: Images of Dying: the affective dimensions of different forms
Led by Dr. Naomi Richards, this workshop examined three examples of different forms used when taking photographs of or about dying: clinical documentation by professionals; process documentation by family members; and allegorical self-portraiture by dying individuals. The photographer’s intention, the affective dimensions of the images for onlookers, the ethical encounter through the lens, and the potential of each form were discussed in the workshop, along with the relationship between the images and the written word. Participants engaged in a lively visual analysis exercise, but some of the images were ‘read’ in different ways. For some, showing the ‘truth’ of the vulnerability of the dying experience was important, whereas for others it made them question where this left the subject’s dignity and whether it left them too exposed.
Workshop 2: Open format with objects
Led by Dr. Elizabeth Reeder, this workshop involved participants each carrying their own questions around image, object and movements/gestures. Participants were asked to bring objects, images, and memories that they wanted to use as catalyst to their writing. The workshop considered the role of the concrete object(ness) of objects as well as the meaning we come to ascribe to them via our writing, making or how we use them within projects. Participants talked about how we build meaning in different ways through our work and how we approach our work. As we spoke about physicality and presence, of objects and memories, we also discussed absence and avoidance and the role that has for many makers (and readers) in the process of considering and writing about of illness, dying, death and grief.
Workshop 3: Engaging with Grief and Bereavement through Photography
Led by Simon Bray, a photographic artist,this workshop involved participants working with their own photograph in order to consider: the importance of place; instigating memories; sensory engagement; and the role of the interview.
Simon Bray’s Loved and Lost project involved re-staging family photographs and recording interviews in order to document people’s personal stories of loss. Designed as a positive and cathartic experience, the process offers a platform to not only publicly acknowledge loss, but also celebrate those who are no longer with us.
Workshop 4: “Dancing & Writing with Death”
Led by Amy Shea, this workshop explored the ‘Dance with Death’ images housed at the University of Glasgow Library, which are both emblem art and memento mori originating from the 1500s. The library describes them as “a grisly motif typically featuring decaying corpses or skeletons who lead the living in a dance to their demise. The dance represents all members of society, from the wealthy and powerful to the innocent and humble, meeting their end at the hands of Death.” The workshop used the images, alongside contemporary ‘death positive’ images from social media, as writing prompts to enable participants to explore their thoughts, ideas, and emotions around mortality and discussion on how humans have processed thoughts on death over the centuries via imagery.
As we plan future Death Writes events, we invite people to get in touch with themes we could plan an event around. Some of the ideas stemming from the Death Writes: Images symposium include:
Death Writes: Art (including Sculpture)
Death Writes: Food/Cooking
Death Writes: Funeral Wakes
Death Writes: Dance
Death Writes: Drama
Death Writes: Environmental Grief
Death Writes: Assisted Dying
Death Writes: Hybrid Forms and Poetry