Feature Shoot

Alison Zavos

February 4, 2011

Sarah Sudhoff is a photographer and educator based in Texas. Her work has exhibited internationally and nationally and her images have been featured in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Health, Texas Monthly and Neon. In 2009, she had her first solo show, Repository, open at Art League Houston, followed by her first international show, Rx, at In Plain Sight Gallerie in Montreal, Canada. In 2010, Sudhoff’s ongoing series, At the Hour of Our Death debuted at De Santos Gallery in Houston, Texas during Fotofest. Soon after she was awarded a visual arts grant from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio to continue work on the series. Sudhoff holds an MFA in photography from Parsons The New School for Design, as well as a Bachelor’s in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She is co-founder of the Austin Center for Photography in Austin, Texas, and is currently on the faculty at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Trinity University.

Of this series, she writes: ‘At the Hour of Our Death takes as its starting point Aries’s observation that “death’s invisibility enhances its terror”. These large-scale color photographs capture and fully illuminate swatches of bedding, carpet and upholstery marked with the signs of the passing of human life. The fabrics which are first removed by a trauma scene clean up crew, are relocated to a warehouse before being incinerated. It is in the warehouse that I photograph these fragments stained with bodily fluids. I tack each swatch to the wall and use the crew’s floodlights to illuminate the scene. The images are my attempt to slow the moments before and after death to a single frame, to allow what is generally invisible to become visible, and to engage with a process from which we have become disconnected’.

When you first started this project, you were met with a lot of rejection from crime scene clean up crews. What drove you to press on and not give up after these initial set-backs?

‘Most of my projects require getting special permission. While working on Repository, I contacted several teaching hospitals in New York all whom laughed at me or flat out said no. It took me several months to finally find one hospital in Texas who was willing to open their doors after an initial interview and I presented my project proposal.

‘The crime/trauma clean up crews were no different. I fully expected that my calls and emails would not returned. I had attempted once to make contact with crews while I was still living in New York which went no where. Once I finished Repository in 2009, I felt it was the right time to try again.‘I’ve learned to only reveal enough about the project or my intentions to get granted access. If I say too much or ask for things too quickly my access is denied or becomes more restricted. As I begin to form a relationship with the subject, company, or crew, then I can start to push the boundaries a little, but this happens over many months. I feel extremely fortunate to have had luck with this current body of work and the relationships I’ve created with the owner and crew’.

Is there something in particular you’re looking for when going through the stained fabric: a pattern or texture or something else?

‘I have no idea what I am going to find when I turn up to the warehouse. Sometimes someone from the crew will reveal specifics about a recent job they completed and what I might find interesting. Other times I go in blind just digging, unfolding and hanging up anything stained. I often hold the fragments up and look at them from different angles. I have no idea which orientation the swatch was originally as I am not there when the pieces are cut or removed from the environment. I do look for patterns and stains on texture. Initially I was photographing everything. 

Now that I have a small series started I think about what I have in my hand in relation to what pieces I’ve already shot. I’m editing before I even start shooting.‘Now that the project is a year old the variety in material and the design or shape of the stains is becoming repetitive. I certainly think this is a project where less can be more. I am striving for 20 images to round out the series, but I’m not sure I’ll get there.

‘I just shot four more pieces this weekend. A mattress, headboard fabric and pillow. I‘m hoping my exposures were correct and that the images are in sharp focus. I won’t know anything until this week when the film is developed.

Under each photograph, you list how old the person was when he/she died and the cause of death. How much information do you find out about each person and what do you think this adds to the work?

‘It is different each time I go to shoot. Sometimes the crew is bringing in boxes while I’m there shooting and I find out exactly what happened and how long it took for the body to be discovered. Other times the crew can only recall the basic details surrounding the death. I never ask their name. I don’t want the identity to accidentally ever slip out, so its best if I just don’t know it. When I’ve run across personal belongings or mail with a name, I avoided looking at them.

‘Angela Strassheim, a friend and fellow photographer titled the images in her recent crime scene series with numbers only–Evidence No 1. In a recent conversation she asked if my titles were important to the piece. I had never thought of the photographs without the title. In my head the two always went together. The text serving as the factual information supporting the visual evidence. However, when I exhibit the series, titles are placed off to the side, never directly next to the images allowing the viewer to discover something more about the piece if they are willing.

‘I assume my desire to include revealing captions stems from my education and training as a photojournalist. I feel the text not only provides a context in which to view the image but adds another layer of understanding to explore. I wonder how the series would be perceived without the cause of death, gender and age associated with a specific image but given just a Death number?’

Given the personal and graphic nature of the work, what has been the overall response to this particular series?

‘Overall the response has been very positive. I feel as an artist you just never know how the public will respond to the work. I start a series first and foremost for myself with the understanding that the work may never be seen or accepted. I have been pleasantly surprised with the number of positive reviews as well as personal emails. The recent film on the series has increased the projects exposure reaching a more diverse and international community.

‘Currently I am in the process of finding venues for the work including two person and group exhibitions. I feel strongly that the although the work can stand on its own even at a small scale as seen on my website the images really need to be seen in person to fully experience my intentions with the work. Last year I had an opening during Fotofest in Houston with the At the Our of Hour Death series. Before the opening I attended a few Fotofest related events and showed 8×10’s of the images to friends attending the conference. It was fascinating how much more positively they responded to the work seeing the images displayed at 30 x 40 inches rather than the small hand held pieces’.

You’ve mentioned that you feel deeply saddened when photographing the remains of a persons death. How do you mentally prepare before a shoot and how do you cope afterwards?

‘I don’t think there is anything someone can do to mentally prepare for dealing with death. Each shoot I have to push myself physically and emotionally to even make the call to see if new material is in. On one hand I dread finding out what jobs the crew is working on yet on the other hand I can’t help but be intrigued by the possibilities.

‘I never know what I will find amongst the biohazard waste that has been brought back from a scene. I may only find one piece of material I think is interesting or somehow different than the other swatches I’ve already photographed. In the beginning it was much easier to narrow down what pieces to shoot. I had nothing to compare them to however now that the project is a year old its become increasingly more difficult to find new fragments that are equally as strong as ones already in the series.

‘Each time I leave a shoot I have a long drive ahead of me. I’ve started taking a change of clothes with me so I don’t have to drive and sit in the outfit I shot the material in. I am usually very careful to cover up and wear gloves however its more of a peace of mind to remove even the possibility of something on me. I typically stop at a gas station to scrub down my arms and face before hitting the road. As soon as I get home, I take a long hot shower and wash all my clothes from the shoot.

‘I have found in the last few months that I have had a more difficult time dealing with the aftermath of photographing textiles someone has died on. While I’ve been able to keep a safe distance from the work for nearly a year that distance has almost completely vanished. I am almost at a point where I simply can not physically go to the warehouse anymore nor emotionally put myself in a position to endure the conditions’.

Illness and mortality has been an ongoing theme in your work. Is there something that’s compelling you to continue to explore this subject?

‘Honestly I’m not sure if there is one specific thing that is compelling me to revisit these themes over and over again. Naturally I am a curious person especially about things were are told not to look at or shouldn’t. Maybe in a former life I was a forensic anthropologist or a pathologist.

‘It’s funny to say but growing up in a military family certainly had an impact. My grandfather, grandmother, father, uncles and one aunt were all military. My grandfather and father were Navy pilots. The knowledge that my father might not come home one day as a result of a training accident or war breaking out was always present. When I was in elementary school my father was gone for nearly a year on an air craft carrier. In middle school I had to watch my father go off to Desert Storm for the same amount of time. Not only was the fear of his possible death weighing on me but I grew up hearing stories of war and battle injuries. My father brought back videos from Dessert Storm of dead bodies and people burning in tanks. Not something the average 7th grader sees.

‘On a trip to visit my grandparents in Tennessee when I was in middle school my mom paid for the funeral of a baby girl whose parents could not afford to. The family attended the church my grandfather helped build and my mother who had always been active in the church while I was growing up often donated her time and money to groups helping the less fortunate. I remember sitting in the funeral home along side my little brother waiting as the papers were drawn up. I don’t recall if I ever saw the little girl’s body.

‘Although I only mentioned a few specific instances I do believe events in my life, especially those which happened at a young age have played a part in shaping my desire to explore aspects of our lives which we are so unfamiliar with and detached from’.

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