Rankin, the acclaimed British photographer who shot subjects like Kate Moss and the Queen of England, is arguably best known for his celebrity-centered artworks. However, the well-known portrait artist is switching gears for his newest project, "Alive: In The Face of Death," tackling the heavy concept of terminal illness and our perceptions of mortality.
Described by Rankin as "one of the most challenging projects I've ever been involved in," the series is part photography exhibit, part documentary, presenting the personal stories of individuals who have dealt with the prospect of dying. Rankin, motivated by the passing of his own parents less than a decade ago, conducted interviews with citizens across the United Kingdom, capturing intense accounts of grieving that became memorialized in a unique portrait series.
However, as the title of the BBC documentary and upcoming Walker Gallery exhibit notes, the project is as much about people's encounters with death as it about their willingness to celebrate life. In addition to the collected video and photographs, Rankin has also created a website where volunteers can upload their own stories of survival, sharing with others their heartbreaking, vulnerable and often awe-inspiring tales of staring death in the face.
Sandra Barber (Credit: Rankin Photography Ltd)
We recently caught up with Rankin, who spoke to us about his own experiences with death, taboos and how this project has impacted his own ideas of passing on:
The Huffington Post: What inspired you to pursue the subject of death in this project? Were you motivated by any one specific experience?
Rankin: My parents passed away seven years ago now and I just wasn’t prepared for it. We’d not really discussed their deaths, even though my Mum was very sick with cancer. So when it happened I wasn’t ready. It felt like they’d live forever and I realised that in British society we avoid discussing these things. I realised I was personally avoiding something I knew I had better start facing up to.
When I was asked by the BBC if there were any projects that I would like to do, I immediately thought about something around our attitude towards death and dying. I wanted to explore what it means to me. From that point on I knew it was actually about me coming to terms with my feelings about my own mortality. It became an exploration of myself through meeting and discussing it with other people. Initially I was shocked to realise I was scared of dying. I thought I was fearless, then when confronted with the concept I started having lots of sleepless nights. Luckily I’m through that, thanks to all of the amazing subjects I’ve met. Hopefully through this journey it will help other people discuss the subject and maybe think about it more.
HP: You note on the project's website that death is the ultimate taboo in British society. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Rankin: Dying in Britain is mostly done behind closed doors. The tough things are left to death professionals, (who feature in the project as well). Children are shielded from it and families don’t easily discuss it. Most of us haven’t seen a dead body, or if we have it’s a fleeting experience. I really believe this distance makes us not truly consider death as a concept and therefore not deal with it. As a society we seem to believe that we are infallible, medicine can cure us, etc. We don’t confront death, as it doesn’t really confront us. We don’t experience it, so we don’t think about it or consider it. So when it comes to dealing with a death in our lives it’s quite a shock. That interested me, as an artist but also as a human.
Something important I noticed was whenever I met people who were really sick, most of those people were so full of life. They were honest and brave and excited/exciting to be around. The negativity that we “well” people seem to revel in is gone. They don’t moan about bills, the weather, politics, traffic. There is a wonder to actually living, which most of us have forgotten because we often take life for granted. I guess they realise how amazing it is to be alive and I felt that doing a body of work about them would influence me and the other people that experience it.
HP: What were your personal associations with or interpretations of death before starting the project?
Rankin: The act of taking pictures is capturing a moment of life, freezing life for a fraction of a second. As a photographer I’ve always been aware of that. Then when people pass away your images begin to take on another meaning. They become tokens of the person that has left. So in a sense, life and death are always there at the click of a shutter. Western society has got so used to selling things with photos; products, dreams, lifestyles even ourselves on Facebook. As I was getting older and experiencing people passing I realized my images took on these new meanings and I couldn’t help but start to consider this. Images of my parents were steeped in emotion, where before they had just been snapshots.
HP: Has focusing on other individual's perceptions of death and dying affected your outlook on life and the everyday?
Rankin: Definitely, I’m much more excited to just be alive. To stop worrying about the stupid things in life but to wonder about how incredible it is to just exist and then to live in those moments.
HP: The project is titled "Alive," and many of the profiles already posted online reflect this focus on living and respecting life in the face of death. Was there a participant who really echoed this sentiment for you?
Rankin: Yes, Sandra Barber, my first subject. She’s only 48 and is a mother and wife who has terminal cancer. She is somebody that is inflicted with this illness but just won’t let it beat her. She was actually first diagnosed eight years ago with breast cancer and the prognosis was one year. Despite pulling through this, she relapsed and the cancer has now spread throughout her body. But here she is still living, with what seems to be sheer willpower and a lot of help from medicine. She really is alive in the face of death. Not only does she want to live because she loves being alive, but she feels like she has a right and responsibility to live -- to see her son grow up and be there for him. A very inspiring human being.
HP: How do you see the project continuing after the gallery exhibit and documentary?
Rankin: Now I’ve started this I don’t see it ending, I will continue to think about it and meet people and keep shooting. We all die eventually, so I guess it will go on until I die myself.
To share your own personal stories or to simply follow the ALIVE project, visit alivexrankin.co.uk. "Alive: In the Face of Death" will be on view at Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool from May 17 - September 15, 2013.