Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Travelers Project: Documenting African-American Funeral Traditions

I wish I were in Amsterdam this Friday to see the new exhibition Ik R.I.P. , featuring many very interesting intersections between art and death. Among these is a chance to see the "Travelers Project" photos by Elizabeth Heyert, and anopportunity to meet Ms. Heyert as well. For more information, visit
"The Travelers," is an project consisting of thirty postmortem portraits by photographer Elizabeth Heyert. Shot in a Harlem funeral parlor, Heyert's nearly life-size color photographs evolved from her fascination with the practice of some members of the Harlem community, people with traditional ties to their church and to their Southern roots, of elaborately dressing their deceased for burial. No matter the circumstances of their life, or death, the departed are, in one undertaker's words, "going to the party"—jubilantly dressed in satin dresses, white suits, tuxedos, and magnificent hats, for their journey to paradise.
Mesmerized by this gorgeous preparation ritual for greeting life after death, Heyert embarked on a project to photograph the beautifully coiffed and adorned bodies as if she were making formal portraits of living human beings. Heyert's portraits offer a meditation on humanity, dignity, and death, while highlighting a fading funeral custom associated with the changing Harlem community."My portraits aren't about death, but about people's lives," says Heyert. "They're not unlike eulogies: these photographs are visual accounts of what the living want to remember, the stories we all want to tell about the dead."

Taken with the permission of the funeral director, and written permission from the individual families involved, the 30-by-38-inch photographs are formal portraits rather than documents of bodies in coffins. Heyert employed a black cloth as a backdrop to conceal the casket and focus on the deceased. Perched on a tall ladder, she photographed her subjects from overhead using an 8 x 10 view camera and elaborate portrait lighting. By design Heyert's portraits challenge our perceptions of what it means to be human, and what it is we see when we look at the dead and the living. At first glance, her subjects often appear to be alive, merely caught in a reflective moment with their eyes gently closed.

Works in the series include images of people, ranging in age from 22 to 101 years, who died in Harlem in 2003 or 2004. The portrait of Daphne Jones, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 49, shows a woman as if peacefully sleeping, her hands in white lace gloves resting against the light-blue gown that covers her body.

Nearly a year later Heyert photographed Jones's son, James Earl Jones, who is dressed in a new Sean John tracksuit and Timberland boots. He died in 2004 at the age of 22. Captions that accompany the photos (stating name, the date and place of birth, and the date of death in Harlem) reveal that over half of Heyert's subjects were born in the American south—Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Taken together, the images and text provoke questions about the journey the people had on earth, in many cases virtually spanning the 20th century, as well as the one they were dressed to embark on.

In "The Travelers", Heyert invites us to ruminate on the beauty and complexity of ordinary lives, once their full story has been told, as well as to witness a cultural history that is vanishing.A selection of "The Travelers" has been exhibited at the Musée de l'Elysée in Switzerland and the Hayward Gallery in London.


Anonymous said...

The Travelers are presently on show at Mediamatic in Amststerdam, The Netherlands. The photo's are part 'Ik R.I.P.', an exhibition on death, internet and self representation.


The Undertaker said...

the photos are gorgeous, thank you for publishing this blog entry. I am amazed how nice the people look yet I can see the "embalming" in them. The black background was a clever idea, the image of the body "in a box" is stark. beautiful! I wish I was in Amsterdam too..

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