"... if I was staring anything in the face it was the inevitability of my own death."
Having embarked upon a part-time Masters Degree whilst working as a Bristol based press photographer, Stephen Lewis was faced with choosing a project to produce and exhibit as part of his course. Previously dispatched to a crematorium to illustrate a press feature, he knew that there was much more to capture if given the time.
“It was always at the back of my mind that I hadn't fully covered the subject and there was still far more left to discover. Photography to me has been most rewarding when the camera has enabled access to the unseen and often unknown.”
The subsequent striking work produced by Lewis for the exhibition ‘Crematorium’ provides us with a privileged insight in to a very final stage of human existence.
Interviewed by Marcus Lawry.
TT: How did you convince the crematorium to allow you access to create these images of such a personal experience? What sort of assurances did you have to give?
SL: Initially it was as simple as a telephone call and then verifying my credentials and meeting the staff explaining my project and gaining their trust and reassuring them I would be respectful and discreet. There was only one condition attached to the project, one I wholeheartedly agreed with, that there was to be no identification numbers or nameplates in any of the images. I wanted the project to be about the wider process of cremation, death and confronting its inevitability.
TT: How did you prepare yourself for the project? Was there a level of trepidation on your part of what you might see, and how you might react personally?
SL: There was no trepidation. I felt very lucky that I had been given an opportunity to photograph such an incredible process. When I started the project I had been a newspaper photographer for over ten years. In the course of the job I had regularly been exposed to difficult and sometimes emotionally challenging experiences. I always try to approach a subject with the utmost professionalism and as was appropriate in this case, respect and sensitivity.
At the rear of the cremation chamber is a viewing aperture, a very thick piece of glass approximately two inches in diameter which glows from the fire raging inside. I would say it took maybe two or three visits to the Crematorium before I felt ready to approach it and view what was inside.
Working within that environment was made far easier as the staff performed their duties with the utmost respect and sensitivity. The standard of professionalism that they exhibited was something I aspired to during my time there.
TT: And how did your experience match that of your perceptions held prior to the project?
SL: I honestly had no preconceived ideas going into the project. I am always very mindful of being as open as possible to a subject, what I can learn from it and how it resonates with me. If you go in with too many preconceived ideas there is a danger you might try to impose them onto your subject and you miss the true narrative of it.
TT: Tell us about the unseen side of a crematorium.
SL: When the coffin is lowered after the service it is then placed on a gurney, which has a series of rollers on it and taken to the door of the pre-heated cremation chamber. This then raises and the coffin is pushed inside. The temperature can reach 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This intense heat vaporizes the soft tissue and muscle and calcifies the bone to the point where they start to crumble.
There is no smell as the emissions are processed and controlled but there is quite a lot of noise from the furnace. It has a certain drone.
The remaining bone fragments are collected in a pan and any screws, hinges, dental work, implants etc are removed by using a powerful magnet.
A machine called a Cremulator, akin to a tumble dryer but containing granite balls, is then used to reduce the fragments into a sand-like consistency.
This is then placed in an urn ready for collection usually by the funeral director.
TT: You were the last person to see those who were cremated.
SL: In one sense I was the last person to see them but the person that they were was no longer there. By the time the coffin had burned away to reveal the body beneath all flesh and features had disappeared leaving just the skeletal remains. I felt more that if I was staring anything in the face it was the inevitability of my own death.
TT: There’s an amazing contrast to your images, but not as one might expect. The photos of the bodies on the pyre are quite beautiful rather than grotesque, whereas the images of the facility or common objects carry almost a cold, disturbing quality.
SL: I definitely agree, the ‘burning’ images I think are very beautiful and the process of obtaining them was a wondrous and powerful experience. Our association with fire runs deep and the emotions it provokes are varied and often contradictory. Its fascinating beauty, mesmeric and comforting qualities are at the same time tempered with a certain fear and respect for its destructive nature.
The images that have had a long-lasting impact on me came from outside the chamber. They are less obvious but in such a dramatic setting I found it fascinating how even the simplest of objects can take on a whole new symbolic meaning.
The photographs that particularly resonate are of a light switch, which in what is sometimes a dusty environment, has a clean, bright switch from human interaction in turning it on and off. Aside from the more obvious metaphor for death and ‘the lights going out’ it also demonstrates that even surrounded by death life still goes on. For very much the same reason the image of the rear door to the crematorium with the lichen enveloping it holds a special power for me.
All images © Stephen Lewis. To contact Stephen for questions or commissions, contact us Here.
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