Transcript for At the Hour of Our Death

 

Jim Fleming: We tend not to talk about death much in North America. Maybe we just don’t have the words to contain something so visceral so fraught so absolute. Maybe images are a better way to explore or express our mortality and our feelings about it. Photographer Sarah Sudhoff, has made art out of disease, hospitals, funeral homes and her own battle with cervical cancer. In a recent body of work she takes a close look at death, an extreme close up in fact. She’s taken beautiful photographs of blood spatter and other matter removed from death scenes. Anne Strainchamps asks Sarah Sudhoff about the collection called “At the Hour of Our Death”. 
 
Anne Strainchamps: Sarah, do you have a favorite photograph from “At the hour of Our Death”? 
 
Sarah Sudhoff: Yes, it’s called “Suicide with Gun Female 60 Years Old”. It’s actually a portion of a mattress bisected down the middle. There’s stains all over it but there’s particularly some red splotches and the mattress is now turned yellow from the stain of urine. 
 
Strainchamps: It’s beautiful as are all your photographs. But well I guess it’s disturbing that they’re beautiful. They’re Beautiful and dark at the same time. Is that what you’re aiming to do? 
 
Sudhoff: I think with this series I’m very interested in getting under your skin a little bit.  To raise questions in your mind to make you curious to make you possibly step back for a second. The few times that I have exhibited the work if I can choose to I don’t often put the text or the title next to the piece I just have the photograph up so it’s a little ambiguous as to what it is, drawing you in, the saturated color, the abstractness. Ideally the prints are thirty by forty inches. So the fragment or swatch that I’m photographing is very much enlarged from it’s actual size. 
 
Strainchamps: So you’re not just looking at a photograph of a bloodstain it’s a gigantic enlarged bloodstain. 
 
Sudhoff: Yes, it’s about the size of me I’m just over five feet tall so it’s close to my size and scale. And umm most of the material is quite small, a throw pillow or a portion of a mattress like I said before or a bedsheet and then I’m using a macro lens and going in real tight and detailed on just a small section. 
 
Strainchamps: What does it feel like to be handling that stuff and what’s your attitude while you’re doing it your touching and photographing the cellular remains of someone who died violently? A lot of people would find that terribly disturbing. 
 
Sudhoff: It is, and the camera provides a nice shield or provides a nice distance between you and what you’re photographing. You can sort of hide behind it. But after a year of working on this project it started to affect me a lot more. Initially curiosity just took over and then the longer that I’ve sat with it the more that I’ve thought about it and talked about the work it is a bit disturbing 
 
 
Strainchamps: Do you feel I don’t know a sense of reverence is there a way in which when your handling some of these objects they feel like sacred objects? 
 
Sudhoff: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I am conscious that it is the cellular residue of someone I don’t know who this person is I don’t know anything more about them than possibly how they died. But I do feel that I have to be respectful, that’s just a personal thing to me that I’m being as careful as I can be. 
 
Strainchamps: We were just thinking that often in our culture you know we like to think that death doesn’t happen or that it can be tidy and here you are asking us to confront beautifully maybe but still to confront death. What kind of reactions do you get from people who see your work? 
 
Sudhoff: It runs the whole gamut a lot of people are moved by the work I get a lot of people who think I’m exploiting the people who have died. For the most part the responses have been very positive. People may find them beautiful in their abstract quality and not want to engage any further with the work and other people that do and want to have a dialogue about death and dying and traces we have a great conversation. 
 
Strainchamps: Why do you think this interest has stayed with you so long? 
 
Sudhoff: I’m not sure. I have a few ideas. I come from a military family and my father went to the gulf war when he came back he showed me videos of what he saw and what it was like to be on the ground there. And you know whether or not a thirteen year old should see that I was definitely exposed to it. I knew about war. I knew about how fragile our bodies were coupled with the fact that I wanted to be a doctor when I was younger. With my experience with cervical cancer that sort of interest in the medical realm with illness with mortality sort of opened back up and came back to the front.  
 
Strainchamps: What does your family think of your work? 
 
Sudhoff: My mother would like me to take pictures of dogs and cats and um in some sense. I think my dad understands my work better than my mother. They both are appreciative and they’re both supportive but it is a challenge. 
 
Strainchamps: You have a new baby. 
 
Sudhoff: I do. 
 
Strainchamps: When he’s old enough to see your work for the first time what do you think you’ll say to him about it how will you explain it.  
 
Sudhoff: Hmm. I guess the easiest way to talk about it is when I was in undergraduate I attended a lecture by a photo-journalist and they were talking about the role of the photographer and the role of the camera. They said that photographers are like flashlights they bring light to the darkness. I’ve loved that idea of revealing something to the world that other people would rather not look at or possibly have looked over. So, I guess I would tell my son that the projects that I work on are issues that most people wouldn’t want to look at or think about but that I feel are relevant and important to share with the world. I feel like I have a duty. 
 
Strainchamps: Has there ever been a photo you’ve taken that’s just been too much too powerful too raw? 
 
Sudhoff: My older project repository when I was photographing in the hospital, I you know had never had access to a hospital like this before and so I was photographing anything.  I was very curious. And one day in the histology lab the technician that I was working with mentioned that an amputation had just occurred. And he pulled the leg out for me to look at. Of course I was curious and wanted to look and I photographed it and even though that I know the person lived because the leg had been removed um they had diabetes and there was gangrene, looking at that detached leg was so disturbing. Aesthetically it was beautiful I shot it on this cutting board that they use in the histology lab that under the fluorescent lights turned green the skin was moist there was purple and red and then the white of the bone sticking out of the leg. It was beautiful and very haunting and one of the only things that I’ve ever photographed that made me cry. 
 
Fleming: Anne Strainchamps talked with photographer Sarah Sudhoff. You can hear our extended interview with her and find photos from “At the Hour of Our Death” on our website ttbook.org.
 

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