Photographer Interviews

Creating a Photographic Study of Decaying Human Corpses

August 1, 2017

By David Walker

Most of us don’t want to think about death, much less witness its physical ravages. But photographer Robert Shults photographed it with a macabre, surreal beauty for “The Washing Away of Wrongs,” his recent project about researchers who study the decay of human corpses at a secluded Texas ranch. Their mission is to gather data that may help solve violent crimes and identify unknown human remains.

“I decided to work like a cultural anthropologist, shadowing [the researchers], and doing everything they do for a year,” Shults says. The goal, he explains, “was to get a first-person perspective on [the question]: What does their work mean?”

Shults’s “dedication and passion comes out in the images,” says photo editor Jenna Garrett of WIRED, which ran the project in February. “I was impressed with the unflinching but ultimately careful way he captured a sensitive subject.”

The project stems from Shults’s long obsession with science. While working on his last big project, about the Texas Petawatt pulse laser and the scientists who work with it, he came across a magazine article about the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University (FACTS). The center has a large “body farm,” where scientists study the decomposition of donated corpses, and it struck Shults as a good subject for his next project.

“There are very few other places like it, and very few people have seen it,” he says. “It’s fascinating by virtue of being unexplored.”

© Robert Shults

Robert Shults shot from the perspective of scientists and students to convey what their work feels like. © Robert Shults

To be sure, the Center’s open-air laboratory in San Marcos, Texas attracted a lot of media coverage after it opened in 2008. But Shults thought the coverage too superficial, focused on the shock value of decomposing bodies, rather than the scientists and their mission. “It didn’t have a sense of place or experience, no sense of what it feels like to endeavor through this difficult work to give someone their name back,” Shults explains. “I wanted to [go] beyond the vaguely scary looking set of six photos of decomposing corpses.”

His first challenge was getting access, which took more than three months. “It was a lot of asking, and asking again, and offering to buy people lunch,” he says. Other journalists had made FACTS administrators wary of journalists. And most of them had asked only for brief access, not a year-long immersion.

Shults first pitched his idea to FACTS director Dr. Daniel Westcott, who was receptive. But Shults says, “I had to go way up the decision chain. In bureaucracies, nobody wants to say Yes to something that’s frustrating to their boss.”

Shults finally got permission, he explains, because of his willingness “to sit down face to face with anyone who wanted to talk, so they could hear what I had to say and how I presented myself.” But his 2014 book called The Superlative Light, about the Texas Petawatt, also swayed administrators.

Texas State University director of media relations Jayme Blaschke says the university’s main concern “is that the dignity of the donors to the Forensic Anthropology Center be respected. Robert agreed, and his previous infrared photography project—The Superlative Light—showed that he could convey a complex subject in a nuanced, sophisticated fashion.”

“To be able to show my book and say: This is what I did last time, and this is what I want to do again [and] I know how to conduct myself in this setting. Honestly, I wouldn’t have got permission if I hadn’t brought that to the table,” Shults says.

He started shadowing professors and students at FACTS in November 2015. He shot the project with a Fujifilm X-Pro1 camera modified by LifePixel with an infrared image sensor. He also used an on-camera Fujifilm EF-42 flash, fitted with Kodak 89B Opaque Infrared gel.

Shults says that setup enabled him to reference the esthetics of forensics photography, as well as the work of Weegee, who used infrared flash and film in order to photograph crime scenes without attracting the attention of police.

Working with the infrared image sensor outdoors also “underscored the natural bucolic beauty of the ranch” where researchers study the decaying corpses, Shults says. And when he is photographing indoors, the flash gives him complete control over the light, because it’s the only source of infrared illumination. It was also invisible to his subjects, so it didn’t disturb or disrupt them, he explains.

Shults worked side by side with the graduate students every day through November 2016. By immersing himself in the story, he says, he was able to see and photograph scenes that would have otherwise eluded him. In one image, for instance, a student crouches in the background behind a cage protecting a recently deceased body from scavenging animals. In the foreground are the skeletal remains of another corpse. “There’s this transfer of force and energy,” Shults says. “I’m watching someone literally deconstruct back into the natural environment and feed the ecosystem. It’s a pretty powerful thing to watch. If I hadn’t been there, it would have never occurred to me.”

Shults typically shoots with a 50mm lens, but for this project, he found himself working almost exclusively with an 18mm (equivalent to 35mm with his camera’s APS-C sensor). “It became very evident very fast that the best strategy was to be as close as possible with a much wider lens, to see as much of the context as possible,” he says, explaining that close-ups of cadavers shock viewers, but provide little information. “It’s important to [show] the scientist and the body, or the body and landscape, so the context is always there. The trick is to compose with [the body] at ground level, and [the scientist] at eye level.”

Shults also wanted to shoot from the perspective of scientists and students to convey what their work felt like. He was able to do that because they got so used to his presence. One image, for instance, shows a corpse from the perspective of the student who is looking at it. Shults shot the photograph from a few inches behind the student’s head. “The camera is right along side her, seeing what she’s seeing,” Shults says.

He started showing the work at portfolio reviews in early 2016, to get a sense of the project’s market potential. He quickly learned that commercial fine art galleries and dealers weren’t interested, but university and non-profit galleries might be.

Shults prepared for a second round of portfolio reviews last fall by showing the project to photographer Jonathan Blaustein, who had written about the Superlative Light project for The New York Times Lens blog in 2013. “He’s someone I can sit down with before a portfolio review to find out what questions I should ask to have the greatest chance of success and constructive dialogue” with reviewers, Shults says.

Blaustein wrote about the project for a Lens blog feature in January. Two weeks later, WIRED also published the project. WIRED’s Garrett says she first saw the work at the Santa Fe Portfolio Review last October.

Shults is now casting about for his next project, which he hopes will be another “deeply embedded participant observation experience,” but on a shorter time scale, he says.

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