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Evocative Photos Of People Before & Instantly After Their Death

Evocative Photos Of People Before & Instantly After Their Death  image

Evocative Photos Of People Before & Instantly After Their Death

Like many of us, photographer Walter Schels had a profound fear of death. It was that same fear that caused him to avoid seeing his mother pass away, too painful to accept, to saddening to see.

But during the later years of his life (Schels was in his 70s when he took these images) he plucked up the courage to come face to face with his greatest and unavoidable fear.

He decided to shoot the portraits of individuals before and directly after their death, titling the series 'Life Before Death'. A bold, daring and unquestionably challenging task for anyone - let alone a man who was desperately afraid of the idea of death itself.

His evocative portraits capture the final fleeting moments in the lives of his subjects and seconds after they’ve slipped into the gentle silence of death itself. They feature patients from hospices in both Berlin and Hamburg Germany.

For some, it was a welcome release from the pain of their lives, for others an unexpected turn of events that had somehow conspired against them.

But far from being morbid or even remotely sinister, Schel’s images are deeply profound and effecting. There is a grace and calmness to them all, a kind of comfort that perhaps death isn’t something to be feared or fretted over, but whose inevitability is to be dutifully accepted.

Name: Jan Andersen.
Age: 27
Born: 21st of February 1978
Died: 14th June 2005, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg

Jan Andersen was 19 when he discovered that he was HIV-positive. On his 27th birthday he was told that he didn’t have much time left: cancer, a rare form, triggered by the HIV-infection. He did not complain.

He put up a short, fierce fight – then he seemed to accept his destiny. His friends helped him to personalize his room in the hospice. He wanted Iris, his nurse, to tell him precisely what would happen when he died. When the woman in the room next to him died, he went to have a look at her. Seeing her allayed his fears. He said he wasn’t afraid of death.

“You’re still here?”, he said to his mother, puzzled, the night he died. “You’re not that well,” she replied. “I thought I’d better stay.” In the final stages, the slightest physical contact had caused him pain. Now he wants her to hold him in her arms, until the very end. “I’m glad that you stayed.”


Name: Elly Genthe
Age: 83
Born: 4th August 1919
Died: 11th January 2003, at Ricam Hospice, Berlin

Throughout her life Elly Genthe has been a tough, resilient woman. She has always managed on her own. Often she has said she would rather die than not be able to take care of herself. That time has now come and she remains undaunted. Full of praise for the hospice and the quality of the care she is receiving, she hopes death will come quickly.

A few days later she senses her strength is ebbing away. Suddenly she clutches her granddaughter’s hand: “Don’t go! I’m suffocating!” She begs the nurses: “Please, breathe for me!” Elly Genthe needs morphine – a drug secreted by the kidneys – but because her kidneys have been consumed by cancer, her morphine levels fluctuate: sometimes she sleeps all day; and there are moments when she sees little men crawling out of the flower pots – they’ve come to kill her.

“Get me out of here”, she whispers as soon as anyone holds her hand. “My heart will stop beating if I stay here. This is an emergency! I don’t want to die!”


Name: Heiner Schmitz
Age: 52
Born: 26th November 1951
Died: 14th December 2003, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg

Heiner Schmitz saw the affected area on the MRI scan of his brain. He realized immediately that he didn’t have much time left. Schmitz is a fast talker, highly articulate, quick-witted, but not without depth. He works in advertising. Heiner’s friends don’t want him to be sad. They try to take his mind off things.

At the hospice, they watch football with him just like they used to do. Beers, cigarettes, a bit of a party in the room. The girls from the agency bring him flowers.

Many of them come in twos, because they don’t want to be alone with him. What do you talk about with someone who’s been sentenced to death? Some of them even say ‘get well soon’ as they’re leaving. ‘Hope you’re soon back on track, mate!’

“No one asks me how I feel”, says Heiner Schmitz. “Because they’re all shit scared. I find it really upsetting the way they desperately avoid the subject, talking about all sorts of other things. Don’t they get it? I’m going to die! That’s all I think about, every second when I’m on my own.”


Name: Elmira Sang Bastian
Age: 17 months
Born: 18th October 2002
Died: 23rd March 2004, at her parent’s home

The tumor was probably already present when Elmira was born. Now it takes up almost the entire brain. “We cannot save your daughter”, the doctor told Elmira’s mother. Elmira has a twin sister. She is healthy. Their mother, Fatemeh Hakami, refuses to give up hope: how can God have blessed her with two children, only to take one of them away from her now? Surely God is the only one who decides whether we still breathe or not?

One sunny day, Elmira stops breathing. “At least she lived”, says her mother. She takes a small white dress from the cupboard, Elmira’s shroud. Her parents then read the Ya Sin – the 36th chapter of the Koran which describes the resurrection of the dead.


Name: Michael Föge Age: 50 Born: 15th June 1952 Died: 12th February 2003, at Ricam Hospice, Berlin

Michael Föge, tall, athletic and eloquent, was appointed as Berlin’s first Commissioner of Cyclists. He was happy. A hundred guests attended his fiftieth birthday celebration. Soon after, he couldn’t remember his words when he was making a speech.

The doctors discovered a brain tumor. Within a matter of months the tumor had destroyed his speech centre, paralyzed his right arm and the right side of his face. In the hospice, day by day Föge is becoming more sleepy. One day he won’t wake up.

Whilst Michael Föge retained the power of speech, he never talked about his feelings or his inner life. Now he is no longer able to do so. “I wonder what is going on inside his head,” his wife asks herself.

You can see more of the story behind Schel's 'Life Before Death' series as well as other individuals who form part of it via our friends at Feature Shoot

All images © Walter Schels

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