Death and Digital Photography

Main Article Content

Helen Ennis


This essay considers new possibilities for photographing the dying and dead in Australia that have been enabled by digital technologies. It argues that vernacular digital photographs demonstrate unprecedented degrees of control and privacy and further that they are purposefully withheld from public view, thus raising issues about visibility and secrecy.

Some historical context is provided. Post mortem photographs were not uncommon in the nineteenth century but were in the domain of professional studio photographers. Commissioning post mortem portraits was rare for most of the twentieth century, due to changing attitudes to death and the transformation of the photographic industry. Photographing the deceased re-emerged in the 1980s, notably in the area of neonatal death.

In the last five years death-related vernacular photographs have begun to proliferate. Unlike analogue processes, digital photography bypasses the involvement of others in processing and printing private images. Distribution to intimates can be achieved instantaneously via the internet, reinforcing social and familial connections.

Vernacular digital photographs of the deceased do not address historical tradition but share their domestic and intimate contexts. Nor do they belong to a unified group, yet they have a common vocabulary which emphasises specificity and detail.

Article Details

The Death Scene (Peer Reviewed)
Author Biography

Helen Ennis, Australian National University

Helen Ennis is an independent photography curator and writer. Her recent publications include Reveries: Photography and Mortality (National Portrait Gallery, 2007) and Photography and Australia (Reaktion, 2007). Helen was formerly Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Australia and is currently Associate Professor at the ANU School of Art.