Photography Book Review
Title: Death is not here
Author: Wouter Van de Voorde
Publisher: Void | Australian Distributor: Perimeter Books
Format: Softcover with dustjacket
Students of theology, medical practitioners, poets. All have reflected for centuries on the nature of death. Is it “good” or “bad”? A famous death poem often spoken at funerals, Death is nothing at all (Henry Scott-Holland), includes these words “It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened”.
Death is not here, a new photobook by Canberra’s Wouter Van de Voorde, is a photographic reflection on the topic. Published by Void, an Athens-based independent photobooks publisher, last November, it has been reviewed and commented on by others on websites and in publications from various countries. Australian distribution commenced in January 2023.
It is, as other commentators have suggested, a mysterious book. It contains no words (in the traditional sense) other than a page of credits and minimal background – itself slightly intriguingly referring to the book as “This is not death”.
The book’s 160 pages are primarily filled with photographs, but also some delightful sketches of fossils. All images and drawings are by the author. Readers – yes, we are reading when we look at photos – are challenged to understand the author’s story for themselves. Or, perhaps, create their own stories about life and death from those images. Van de Voorde himself has written “A peculiar convergence of death/life and permanence/impermanence occurred during the period I made these images. ‘Death is not here’ is a personal time capsule capturing and preserving this time in my life.”
The subjects include ravens, dug holes, lumps of clay, rings of fire, curtains, a mother and newborn, sculpted pieces, an egg, plus dead or dying animals and plants.
© Wouter Van de Voorde -32 (raven on pole with fixer stain, 2021)
© Wouter Van de Voorde -30 (Round fire hole, 2021)
© Wouter Van de Voorde -33 (cracked egg on fossils sculpture)
But the subjects, per se, are not the story. Readers need to take up the challenge to explore and interpret what the images reveal.
In some ways, many photographs are so unlike it is difficult to see how they belong together. Every so often there is a blank page. For me, these said stop awhile, think about what you have read, review the material already seen before moving on. Some images may generate feelings of anxiety or be difficult to appreciate in the context of the whole story. Or you may simply not like them.
At the time of taking the photos, the author was about to become a father for the second time. He had been making still lifes with fossils.
© Wouter Van de Voorde -31 (mother and newborn)
When his son wanted to play a real-life version of video game Minecraft, they began digging in their backyard. The hole grew deeper and wider.
© Wouter Van de Voorde -29 (Felix and Leo playing with mud in the garden, 2021)
Van de Voorde began experimenting – drawing the outlines of holes with flames. Unearthing the grave of a chicken, bones visible, they harvested clay and used it to fire small objects, including a skull. Images of empty backyard spaces are interspersed with others of the artist’s son in an eroded gorge. Were the father and son together exploring what lies beneath. Remember the supernatural horror thriller film of that name?
© Wouter Van de Voorde -34
The philosopher Epicurus famously asserted that death should not be feared. His argument has been summarised. When we die, we no longer exist and can feel neither pain nor pleasure. Therefore, there is nothing to fear in death, as death literally is nothing. Or, if you prefer – Don’t worry, as long as we’re alive, Death is not here!
But isn’t death everywhere? In Ukraine and other battlefields, in various Californian shootings recently, on our roads regularly when vehicles crash, sometimes in hospital operating theatres, in the funeral notices pages. The nature of death is highly variable. Despite Epicurus, many do fear it.
How do you perceive life and death?
This review was first published by the Canberra Times – online here and on page 5 of Panorama in the print edition of 4/2/23. It is also available on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.