Photographer Tony Chirinos is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this photo essay. From the project ‘Requiescat in Pace’. To see Tony’s body of work, click on any image.
Death does not discriminate. On the surface, this project has neither race nor gender, which in theory should create a utopian arena. However, this is a space of mortality. Deep within my psyche I know that this body of work is about questioning spirituality. The tactile-like images of wrapped bodies on cool stainless-steel gurneys and in refrigerated storage compartments produce a visceral response, which is the primary focus of this project.
The portraits are highly descriptive, depicting bodies—completely wrapped in white bed sheets or plastic–in the cold and sterile space of the morgue. Looking at these bodies, one is struck by their similarity to Egyptian mummies. Closer attention reveals their differences; scrutinizing many wrapped bodies, I easily identify the different parts, the head –being the most recognizable-, torso and lower limbs. If one compares the cloth that is soft and appealing to the stainless steel that is cold and repellent, a visual struggle arises amidst the surfaces. The photographs that document the interior landscapes of the morgue as well as those that depict dead bodies bare an acute account on humanity’s universal vulnerability. There are tools, containers, fluids, plastics, cloth, transparent tape, hoisting devices, gurneys– items used for examining the body and not the soul.
The descriptive nature of the material within these photographs provokes an instinctive response. For me, the photographs reference memories of growing up as a Catholic and my experiences with death; the shrouded bodies allude to religious rites and symbols, and the bodies that are suspended in mid-air echo the resurrection of Christ. I have received similar responses to these images from others as well: a Turkish woman explained that my photographs reminded her of how bodies are wrapped for burial in her country; some Jewish viewers have said that the images of wrapped bodies in the refrigerated storage compartment remind them of the ovens in Nazi concentration camps.
I am fortunate to be able to produce images that can stir up such visceral responses. Since the beginning of this project I have struggled with questions about life after death, yet the intense investigation has left me ever more confused. I have come to realize that part of my difficulty in relating to death is being able to reconcile the mysteriousness described by religion and the cold finiteness associated with the world of science and medicine. My ultimate question is: if our souls ascend to heaven, do we take our knowledge with us, and, if we cease to exist after death, why are memories of our existence left behind?
These images are now part of a book titled, The Precipice published by Gnomic Book. The precipice where the body rests on the unseen point between life and death was one that I witnessed many times in the surgical suite. As a hospital photographer, I watched the performance of costumed medical professionals as they opened, sliced, cauterized, sponged, and reversed many of the same motions all in the attempt to heal the patient. The covered, anonymous patient thus puts their only true possession, their human body, in a state of vulnerability, exposing their delicate flesh in an attempt at a physical redemption. I became fascinated and deeply affected by both the drama and utter ordinariness of it, and the absoluteness of the process. Surgery was like an opera, a pageant; the actors, props, stage and lighting all hinging viscerally to the end of each patient’s earthly tale. It is this drama, this intense moment of transformation and the mystery of the unknown, the beauty and the tragedy, that I seek to capture in my images. The three projects in Farewell – the Surgical Theater, Morgue, and Tools examine of the physical nature of the body; look at the sterility, formality, and impersonal environments of the medical environment; and present their tools as typological and anthropomorphic symbols for both the procedures, and the bodies that they explore and dissect and their design for human use. Farewell is an ongoing and deeply personal project. The purpose of my work is to create a visual narrative that examines rather than shies away from how precious life is and that, despite how cold and finite death may seem, it is a vital and integral conclusion of a story that can’t ever be fully told without including it. So much of death’s story remains untold -- unseen, unwitnessed or not yet experienced. These projects created a vehicle to examine my deep desire to explore some of our ideas about death’s enigmas. This photographic journey could have diverged in one way – the transition back into life, the rehabilitation, the healing, yet, this tale follows a clinical, sterile path of the body’s care after death. And this diversion guided my photographic path to examine the hospital’s morgue and, thus, a closer look at my relationship and a broader examination of the cultural and personal associations with death. In my work, death is the quiet context and the constant, the slow and steady pulse that is as much a part of living as that first heartbeat of new creation. While some have a chance at redemption and vitality, others succumb to death’s call. This became a very personal exploration for me and while, to some, the examination may be macabre, this work pushes us to look at our soft, tender flesh and the body and vitality that resides inside as vulnerable. I aspire to have this project bring to the conscious conversation the truth that living is both a luxury and a dilemma; the more time any of us have on this earth, in these bodies and lives, the closer and more noticeable death becomes. The Precipice is the summation of nearly two decades spent working as a biomedical photographer in Miami. Chirinos threads the needle between the sometimes delicate, often brutal world of surgical intervention. The book is separated into three main bodies: surgical photographs of living subjects; vibrant typologies of exquisitely photographed tools; and the journey to the afterlife. The Precipice draws back the curtain to a world which most of us never see, where human fragility and resilience coexist in an uneasy equilibrium.
All images and text © Tony Chirinos
By Tony Chirinos
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