Thursday, July 12, 2007

Portraits of a Dying Man

Just about a month ago, Radio Lab, a weekly radio show broadcasted on New York Public Radio, aired a program entitled "Mortality". Within this show there was segment called "Grandpa", which tells the story of three generations of men in the Zagar family. The piece starts off with the two youngest Zagar men, Jeremiah the grandson, and Isaiah the son, talking about the emotional experience of watching their respective father and grandfather Asher Zagar actively die. While Isaiah tended to his father's needs, Jeremiah emotionally retreated. As a means of involving his son in the process of his grandfather's death, Isaiah stated, "I thought to myself, challenge this young boy to a duel. Who can take the most objective photographs of a dying man." So for the next month, and consequently the last month of Asher's life, both son and grandson photographed this man extensively. After Asher passed away, they concurred that Jeremiah's photographs were more poignant. They had captured with intimacy and honesty the hard truths that accompany the dying process. Isaiah had used photography as a tool to enable Jeremiah to connect with his grandfather in his last days.

I was moved to write about this story because it reinforced for me, the idea of using art, and specifically photography, in a therapeutic context. The medium's inherent realism enables the capture of important moments to be preserved, and hence revisited whenever desired. In this way, photography serves as a way of not letting go of the past, of essential keeping the past in the present. The stringent capture of the world over the last 150 years, has allowed everyone access to representations of what things looked like long before they were born. It is this tangibility that photographs possess that heightens their impact. They're physical objects with smells, textures and tones, unlike many memories that retreat into our subconscious. When these memories do begin to slowly dissipate, people often call upon photographs as memory-enhancers. The therapy that photography provides is multifaceted; it spans the capturing, revisiting and archiving of significant moments in ones life. They can provide a multitude of different emotional responses, both positive and negative. Often in those harder times, people turn to photography to conserve the memory and legacy of someone they loved.

This was the case with Jeremiah & Isaiah Zagar. The act of photographing Asher physically and emotionally bridged the gap for Jeremiah to process the reality of the situation. His father, in an extremely poignant moment, explains that the "duel" was fixed from the beginning. Isaiah had intended to lose all along, so as to allow Jeremiah the closure he felt he needed.

Due to the graphic nature of the photographs, and out of respect to the family; I have decide not to include images in the body of this post. However, if you are interested you can find the slideshow of images taken by Jeremiah Zagar of his grandfather, here.

In closing, as a brief epilogue to this story, I found out that Isaiah Zagar happens to be a well known and respected artist. He has worked extensively creating beautiful Mosaic murals on the streets of Philadelphia. For anyone residing there, I'm sure you're already quite familiar with his work. However, if you're not, you can find his work here.

-Ben Alper