The concept of death is at the back of the mind of us all. Our whole understanding of life is defined by the idea that it has a beginning and also an end — it would be inconceivable to imagine how people would behave if they knew they were immortal and would be here forever. It’s a tradition in Eastern societies to display obituaries (necrologs) announcing a person’s death in public, in sharp contrast to the West, where these announcements would briefly appear in the newspaper.
Zak Dimitrov turns to his home country of Bulgaria where obituaries are displayed everywhere — trees, houses, coffee shops, any random place one can imagine, but more often than not places that were once of significance for the deceased. The starting point for the photographer was the evidently blurred line between private and public. Grief is a very private experience, yet the families choose to display theirs out in the open.
The format is generally the same everywhere - an A4 sheet of paper with a picture of the deceased and a eulogy from friends and family. Sometimes this would be addressed to “our beloved son/daughter” which speaks of an entirely different kind of loss — the loss of a child, a very unnatural thing to happen in the sense that no parent should bury their own child.
Dimitrov’s attention was mainly captured by the photographs. These are pictures that were taken when the person was alive so their initial purpose was not to be used on their obituary - nobody has their photograph taken and thinks “oh yes, this would look fantastic on my obituary”. The sheets of paper are commonly put in a plastic sleeve to protect them, although in many cases the encasing would actually cause the paper to deteriorate. Condensation, rips and tears and insects stuck and died inside were the most common types of damage. The photographer here poses the question why this has happened — is it because these people are largely forgotten and their friends and relatives don’t have the time or the will to replace their obituary? The damaged photographs in Face Death are an incredibly apt metaphor for the passage of time and life in general — we all come from dust and return to dust in the end.
Death, and taxes, are the only two certainties in life. No matter what one does or achieves, the end is always certain and predetermined. Isn’t this strangely reassuring and calming in a sense? There is no big unknown to the end of life. Dimitrov’s photographs ask us to slow down for just a moment, consider our own mortality and appreciate being alive — it doesn’t last forever.
Rendered in colour or monochrome, with the aid of a flash or natural light, the images are the ghosts of those who never knew that this picture would be their final memory for others to keep. Owing to our balk at morbidity or the distraction of life we never contemplate the solitary picture that will accompany the final words of eulogy upon our passing.
It is a curious thing to entrust such a significant act to those with whom we cannot deliberate. The cruelty of death is met by the cruelty of editing and the last picture is offered to an unknowing world, resplendent in its earnest simplicity.