Sunday, February 14, 2016

Roadkill Photography - A Manifesto

"Noah"  03/19/2005 - Center Point, PA

I purchased this photograph (above) from Joy Hunsberger’s display at the Philly Punk Rock Flea Market in December, 2015. Why, you may ask. I can’t tell you, because I don’t always understand my motivations. I suppose I purchased it to make an emotional and artistic connection to someone who ALSO photographs dead animals. There, the truth is out – I photograph dead animals. Have been, off and on, for ten or more years. And I don’t know why.

Joy’s rationale for photographing dead animals – roadkill, specifically – was conveniently included in the clear plastic envelope behind this beautiful 12x18 inch color photograph of the dead bunny. I was totally intrigued by this “ROADKILL MANIFESTO,” which describes her thought process over the course of “a decade of documenting roadkill.” Throughout this article, I have included some of the animal images from her website. I’m also going to use her manifesto as sort of an outline for this article.

After reading Joy’s manifesto and later interviewing her, I may be a bit closer to understanding my own motivations. (It took me ten years, by the way, to be able to answer the question of why I make photographs in cemeteries. The reason? To get closer to death, to come to terms with my own mortality and to soften the blow when loved ones die – I think.) So what is Joy’s motivation? Get closer to death? Become more in tune with her mortality? No she says, she’s always had a clear understanding of that. She photographs dead animals as a way of defining her - and their - place in nature. She sees animals as her relatives - our relatives – beings that deserve our respect. Perhaps one reason she feels so grounded in this idea is because she views animals as very clearly part of our extended family. The fact that she personally has very few blood relatives may have influenced her thought process.  


(Bold Quotes are from Joy Hunsberger’s ROADKILL MANIFESTO:)

“A lot of people don't understand my art. They think I'm trying to shock people, or that I'm romanticizing death or dark ideals. None of these is the case. My work is actually a very deep, ancient conversation. My obsession with taking pictures of roadkill is rather complex.

In its simplest form, it is a deeply spiritual ritual that pays homage to our four-legged ancestors, a practice in compassion, and also a raw energetic connection to the natural world. It also assumes a more complex vantage point as a critical dissection of our/my place in the current world, and an apology for our/my disruptive influence upon it.”

"Melanie" 02/10/2006 - Worcester, PA
Many people would rather not look at images of dead animals, but I, for one, am strangely compelled to observe roadkill. I am also compelled to photograph it ... them?  I never really thought about why this is. Joy has conjectured that people are turned off by these visual reminders of death for a number of reasons. For one, it is because it reminds us of our own mortality. In addition, I believe, because it also makes us feel guilty for killing them.

Does Joy go out looking for roadkill? No, she says, she always just happens on it. Such occurrences are fairly common in the suburbs, she states. Based on my own experiences, it is not an altogether safe practice to be running out into traffic to photograph a dead raccoon or deer. Again, I don’t fully understand why I do it. Maybe this could be part of the reason:

“Hovering over these precious vessels that once held life, shining a light in the dark, I have slowly been transforming my camera into a shamanic tool all these years. In many ways, my work creates opportunities for transformation for both the deceased and also for the viewer, and raises further questions about the separation and integration of art, life cycles, and spirituality, from one another. All of life is a delicate balance, with our time in this realm balanced by our passing from it.

As a society, we fear death because we do not fully understand it, but even more so because we cannot control it. This is an imbalanced view. Current societal ideals state that we must control as much as possible, shunning any symbiotic relationship with nature, any ideas of impermanence, and anything that is not immediately gratifying to the ego, in favor of the illusion of security, born from control. This upsets the balance of life.”

The preceding paragraph may sound familiar, if you read my January 3, 2016 blog post, “The Death Salon.” What Joy writes is in accord with what Caitlin Doughty, founder of Death Salon and The Order of the Good Death tells people. “The Order of the Good Death is a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality … [it] is about making death a part of your life… accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.- (http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/about)


“In truth, anything that we cannot control becomes almost morally unacceptable, eventually becoming intolerable. In our casual conversations, we tend to shy away from any prolonged observation of our mortality, as it is considered distasteful, vulgar, and sometimes dangerous. The topic of mortality is generally considered to be uncomfortable in the current culture as a whole, and as such, is even sometimes used as a means to steer public opinion.”

From the Death Salon website:  Death is sanitized and hidden in contemporary culture to the point of becoming a taboo subject. We aim to subvert this death denial by opening up conversations with the public about death and its anthropological, historical, and artistic contributions to culture” (http://deathsalon.org/). This makes me think of how popular the Mexican Day of the Dead has become in non-Mexican culture. Do all these people appreciate the meaning behind Día de Muertos or is it just a good excuse for a party while wearing skull-design fashions?

Joy thought it ironic that the punk rock girls at the Philly Punk Rock Flea Market with all their skull-and-crossbones clothing appeared rather squeamish and shied away from her large photographic display of death. Reactions to her work vary. She came across a customer in a bar once where she was one of several artists who had their work set up to sell. The person - a fine arts painter - was drawn to her work but did not understand why. He told her, “I can’t stop looking at your work, it will haunt me if I don’t buy it.” Finally, he had to make the decision with the money that remained in his pocket – buy that last drink or buy one of Joy’s photographs. He opted for the latter, stating that he did not understand why, but he had to own it. I may have a clue as to why he felt that way.

Something I’ve noticed in doing research to help people find their ancestors’ graves at (the formerly abandoned) Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, is that many people need a tangible link to their past. They need to feel a greater connection to their human family. Might this be part of the reason people are drawn to Joy’s photographs? A subconscious kindred association with these animals? A need to include them as part of a larger family?

"Paul"  05/26/2007 - Souderton, PA
If the images in this article speak to you in some way, and you need to have a deeper association with them, please visit Joy Hunsberger’s website to view many more examples. You may see something that speaks to you, something that urges you to have a deeper conversation with yourself about man’s place in the “hierarchy” of the animal kingdom. All 12 x 18 inch color photographs are available for purchase by contacting Joy at joy@joyh.com


When I first walked up to Joy’s large exhibit and realized what the subject matter was, I immediately wondered about people’s reactions to her images. People react to my own cemetery photography in certain ways, but my work is more about abstract death - Joy’s is graphic and real. Observers may behave one way, yet cannot, or will not allow themselves to verbalize (or even understand) what it is that deep down really bothers them about her roadkill photographs.

“In the end, people seem to be afraid to think of their bodies as merely temporary arrangements of atoms which house an eternal life-force. They are attached to their limited, constructed ways of thinking, and any change scares them. For this reason, my work is often not well-received.”

I wonder if people are better able to accept the death of an animal if it appears peaceful, versus one that has suffered a tragic, blood-spattered demise? I wonder if the people that react most violently to Joy’s work are those steeped in the denial of their own mortality? I wonder if they’re the kind of people who buy way more books than they could ever possibly read due to the subconscious belief that if there are books to be read, their lives will be extended to allow that to occur.

What are Joy Hunsberger’s own reactions to seeing dead animals in person? She told me that she does not know why she started making such photographs, but she has learned to appreciate the beauty of these animals from her close vantage point. For instance, she was astounded by the sheer size of a roadkilled elk hit by a tractor trailer. “Four people could have sat on its back, each of it’s hooves was a big as my head.”

My own reaction to roadkill has changed since seeing Joy’s work and reading her Manifesto. This winter, I stopped by the side of the road to photograph a dead white-tailed deer in northern New Jersey. I was fascinated by the dead gray, pupil-less eyes and the doe’s long, snow-frosted eyelashes, details I had never looked for in the past.

When Edward S. Curtis photographed Native Americans in the late 1800s, he no doubt grew to appreciate the detail his subjects had to offer. His goal was to photograph and document as much of Native American life as possible before that way of life disappeared. Ironically, it was to disappear because of the White Man’s presence. Our ancestors, the European settlers, mowed down the indigenous people on the North American continent much the same way as we now mow down animals on our highways, except the latter have even less of a say. Progress and capitalism, damn anyone or anything that gets in our way.


"Many artists create idyllic imagery of beautiful moments and pleasing aesthetics. This has its place, and serves its purpose. However, we understand from experience that desiring for things to ALWAYS be easy, happy and controllable (comfortable) is unrealistic, unbalanced, and unnatural. It affords no opportunity for growth or reflection, and therefore circumvents the very root of compassion, empathy and resilience."

That last statement reminds me of my own desire to photograph crumbling, gothic cemetery angels rather than the pristine, unblemished white marble ones. I suppose I see the worn ones as more “realistic,” less idyllic. Most people like to view the world through rose-colored glasses.

I choose to spend a lot of my time around dead things – I have been doing cemetery photography for about fifteen years and have written about my experiences in my weekly Cemetery Traveler blog for the past five years. The more time you spend around dead things, the more you realize that you cannot avoid the inevitable. Once you realize that certain things are beyond your control, perhaps you can instead focus on bringing more beauty and understanding into the world while you occupy a place in it.

“This expectation of ease has become a silent agreement in society that makes us manic, mentally unstable, sick, oppressed and depressed. It turns us into control freaks to the point that we ignore our own ethics and the balance required of life, and actually pushes us towards death even faster at an unnatural pace.

Our current practices in consumption, gratification, and apathy are unbalanced and destructive. However, their nature has been aesthetically transformed by a social agreement to focus solely on their pleasurable, attractive short-term attributes as if only they existed. This way of thinking acts as a social lubricant, binding us together in a common mindset, but in reality, the long-term effects of this type of denial quietly rob us of our souls, break down our bodies, and weaken our minds.

It leads us to make unconscious choices that we might not sanction with our conscious minds. For example, currently in suburban culture, many people need to drive to get to their jobs. Driving = job = money = food & shelter. Without food & shelter we would die.

The short equation is: Driving = Life and its counterpart, 
Not Driving = Death.”

"Maxine" 10/26/2003 - Williamsburg, VA

Why is it bothersome to us when we are reminded that we kill animals with our motor vehicles? Is it the guilt that we feel as a result of the killing or the fact that we cannot totally control our environment? Joy believes that the capitalist vision of our interaction with nature does not allow us to confront the reality that we, like roadkill, will eventually come to the end of our lives.

She tells me that today [Western] society is death-phobic or suffering-phobic – we avoid anything related to suffering or death. She believes that if we accepted death for the natural place it has in our lives, we would all make more rational decisions. Inevitable death should be, she believes, a reminder for us to make the most of our time on earth. Death is the punctuation mark, she states, the period at the end of our life’s sentence. With this way of thinking, our challenge, I suppose, is to complete the sentence as best we can.

Is this abhorrence of death learned or innate? Joy relates the story of an eight-year-old boy who ran up to her display of dead animal photographs and expressed shock at what he saw. In her calm, soothing voice, she said “You don’t have to be afraid, they can’t hurt you. They’re dead.” “Oh,” said the young boy, and his demeanor changed. Kids in general usually have less of an issue with her work.  

"Alexander" 04/08/2008 - Trooper, PA

"So many people drive each day in order to "avoid death" that there are traffic jams and accidents. They are willing to play the odds of taking the life of an animal, a human, or even themselves, in order to try to circumvent a more probable demise, given the above equation.

What this boils down to is that those people are willing to swap the (perceived) more probable, eventual risk of losing their own lives, with the (perceived) less probable, more immediate risk of taking another’s life.

In this way, roadkill has become an unconscious form of proxy. When we see an animal in the street, most people do not think about this substitution, or recognize them for the sacrifices that they truly are."

This brings the idea of value to the fore – is the life of a common housecat more valuable than the life of an elk? Since we are more closely connected to domesticated animals like cats and dogs, do we place greater value on their lives?  Why is the life of a deer less valued than the life of Cecil the lion (http://cecilthelion.org/)? We assign values to different lives – human lives included. Joy’s opinion is that all life matters. The more she studies roadkill, the better she understands the idea of the end of our own human existence. We should plan a “good death,” she believes, a preparation for the end through, dare I say, enlightenment? How can the average person reach a place of equanimity about dying?

The writer Jiddu Krishnamurti (regarded as one of the greatest philosophical and spiritual figures of the twentieth century) said:
Most of us have fear in one form or another; and where there is fear there is no intelligence. … Do you know what intelligence is? It is the capacity, surely, to think freely, without fear, without a formula, so that you begin to discover for yourself what is real, what is true; but if you are frightened you will never be intelligent.”
-  From the book, Think On These Things

"Homer" 03-18-2009 - Kulpsville, PA

As a way of helping us make a personal connection to the animals she photographs, Joy Hunsberger, the artist/interpreter, gives proper NAMES to her subjects. For example, “Homer” the opossum, and “Eden” the deer. If you look at her website (http://joyh.com/), you’ll see this. I have captioned her photographs in this article with the names she gave these deceased animals. I find this naming process fascinating. I asked her about it and she feels it is a way to put the animals on an equal footing with us, to help us make a cerebral connection with them. 

I thought about Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve, and how he wrote that it was Eve who gave names to all the animals. Adam was confounded by the whole process. In Twain's description of Eve, she is the one truly engaged in this glimpse into Eden. Eve is fully engaged in the life process - the thinker, seeker, the emotionally active being. It is no wonder that it is Eve who names the animals (and discovers fire, by the way), while Adam sits in a tree and complains, “I wish it would not talk. It is always talking.


Twain's Eve states at one point, “I have taken all the work of naming things off his hands, and this has been a great relief to him, for he has not gift in that line, and is evidently very grateful.” Eventually, Adam comes to appreciate her wisdom. After she dies, Adam says, “Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.”

2 comments:

  1. A tough post to read through, Ed. I noticed some harsh comments in a FB group you shared it with. I don't think they read through the whole article.

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  2. That rabbit photo reminds me of I Will Follow You Into the Dark by Death Cab for Cutie.

    G-somewhere outside of Philly.

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