Look at enough photographs and it’s inevitable that, at some point, you’ll find yourself pondering mortality and photography’s relationship to death. Because the medium so effectively captures fragments of lives, events, and data that have come and gone, you’re always looking at and trying to make sense of something that’s over, finished, part of the past.
Writers—particularly those fascinated by the power of photographic imagery—tend to dwell on the theme. “All those young photographers who are at work in the world,” Roland Barthes reminds us in his classic book, Camera Lucida (1981), “determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of death.”
“In front of the photograph of my mother as a child,” he goes on to write, “I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder…over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is a catastrophe.”
Susan Sontag, too, in her seminal 1973 book, On Photography, saw clear connections between photography and death. “At the very beginning of photography, the late 1830s,” she wrote, “William H. Fox Talbot noted the camera’s special aptitude for recording ‘the injuries of Time’ . . . . Photography is the inventory of mortality . . . . Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.”
Humbly acknowledging photography’s utility in assessing “the injuries of Time,” we asked Douglas Ubelaker—curator and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, who has published extensively on forensic anthropology—to write about the pivotal role photography plays in identifying human remains and providing invaluable courtroom evidence.
Fascinated as we are with images of our lives, we’re equally and understandably obsessed with images about death, as the continued popularity of the darkly comedic TV show Bones, about a forensic anthropologist, attests. As Ubelaker reminds us, images that are made and used by forensic anthropologists have radically transformed science and the legal system. To get a sense of how and why that’s happened, click here.