"A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence."Susan Sontag
My recent photographic series on Roadside Memorials focused on grief and loss which was addressed through personal shrines created for loved ones that had been killed on the road. It was whilst working on this series that I also came across many other victims, dead animals that festooned many of our roads.
Over the last few decades the number of our roads has grown and with it the traffic. Consequently many animals' habitats have been reduced to small corridors of natural forest or bush and their daily routines have become more dangerous. Also roadsides are attractive to animals due to water in ditches, freshly slashed vegetation or food thrown from cars. In addition, dead animals act as a food source and attract others. All of these factors have lead to an increase in the number of fatal accidents for animals as well as for humans.
About three years ago I began to collect images of roadkill, photographing the animals as they were, squashed on the road; sometimes flattened, sometimes reshaped in their moment of death. In their stillness I could look at them unhurried, observing closely their size, pattern and beauty (or what was left of it). It's not often you have the opportunity to closely examine a wild animal because they either move fast or are too far away to be looked at properly. Their appearance was often surprising making me question their identity and behavior.
In my images I sought to create a death mask - as used for identification during the 18th and 19th centuries — to permanently record the characteristic and distortions of the animals, like a true portrait. I therefore isolated the animal from the road thus removing anything that could distract our attention. I also enlarged the image so that the animal's presence becomes overpowering and can't be overlooked.
It saddened me to imagine their suffering and loss. Several times I witnessed that one of a pair had been killed and its mate was still lurking, puzzled by the accident, returning to the dead body, touching it but not understanding what had happened: an almost heartbreaking observation.
People create roadside Memorials in order to express their grief and perhaps also communicate their sorrow to a wider public than they could with a conventional grave. Handwritten notes and personal belongings that symbolize the deceased are carefully positioned on site. The majority of these memorials also show a photograph of the deceased. The photograph plays a crucial role: It makes the deceased a noninterchangable character and brings them back to life by showing us their face.
My roadkill portraits function in a similar way. They are witness to the animals' existence and death, and make them part of our life.
Absence is reversed to presence. Facing ongoing changes in our environment and a growing population with further demands on shrinking habitats, one wonders how long we will be surrounded by these animals - will they soon be history? Some people would argue that the presence of roadkill is a positive indication of the existence of animals. Their very presence means that there are animals around and an environment healthy enough to support them. What if there was no roadkill? What would that say about our environment?
My photographs are a place for safekeeping, they keep the visual mementos available and alive as much as they are confronting us with loss. Memory is coagulated and preserved in the images that refer to the animal itself, representative of nature and its fragility. Photography not only becomes a stabilizer of our memory but also recreates memory. It freezes time and helps us to do both; observe with precision and look back. It builds an interesting link between the past and the present, the living and the dead, us and our environment.
Claudia Terstappen 2010
I would like to thank Greg Wallis for his support and help with preparing the digital files.