I like photography. And I like skeletons.
However, not many people want to own pictures of skeletons. Not real ones. Many people enjoy the stylised skulls of goths and Mexico. But real skulls? From real people?
The ethics of displaying human remains is complex. We have built a sensitive society who never see death and collude to rarely discuss it, which gives little emotional preparation for when bereavement or our own mortality (inevitably) happens.
Museums can display skeletons, but within an educational context and with sensitivity, and where people can avoid them and will not come across them by accident. In contrast, bodies displayed for art are often seen as garish and voyeuristic, as the Body Worlds displays continue to cause in debate.
I can photograph skeletons in museums, and I can display those photographs. I must acknowledge the museum as the source of the image, and not sell those images for profit. Surprisingly, I can purchase skeletons too. Ones over 100 years old have confusing legal status in private ownership, but are often in disrepair, deserving care and attention. Which is great for me as a photographer. However, I must decide what is ethical, and what I should do with the photos: Should people be confronted with images of human skeletons without due warning or art context? Would it be ethical to sell these images?
I am fortunate that all these questions occurred in my final stages of an OCA photography degree. It actively encourages students to face up to ethical debates, as well as distribute their work for feedback and comment. Through my college work, I have met a community of people working in areas of death, bereavement and ethics. It was these contacts that answered concerns about context and ethical display of human remains, as well as responsible handling of skeletons. Working with solicitors, funeral directors, hospice staff, archaeologists, museum staff and even human brain researchers, I have learnt a lot about ethical treatment of the dead.
My solution to the difficulty of displaying my work in an appropriate ethical context has been to co-organise an event to make that context: Dying for Life is a festival of ideas, talks, my art, demonstrations and discussions about death, happening in Cambridge on the 13 May 2017.
With the vision and the collaborations in place, it took surprisingly little work to find sponsors to cover venue costs. From the OCA course materials, I also felt encouraged to apply for support using public funding from Arts Council England, not only to display my current work, but paying for my time to make new images for the day. I received grant approval this week!
That is how I made money from art I can’t sell.
I am free to use my images to evoke debate, thought, to engage with people and help them confront a difficult topic, with the view to enriching their lives, and continue to explore what excites my interest.
What would you do?
Image Credit: Susan Elaine Jones, 2016
Also published on Medium.