The Washington Post

Decomposing a shot

Although journalism seeks to create change in communities around it, less talked about is how pieces affect journalists themselves. When Washington Post photographer Jahi Chikwendiu’s mother died recently, he found an unexpected source of comfort in one of his projects — the rotting of a deer on the side of Route 7. During months of observing changes to its body, Chikwendiu witnessed not only its transformation from flesh to a loose sack of blackened skin, but the way that the deer became a source of new life for thousands of maggots.

“It was an emotional thing, but for me it was an acceptance of ‘This is what life brings,’ ” Chikwendiu said. “Life brings death and that death brings life.” The idea of the continuation of life is what helped Chikwendiu cope , and it is the underlying theme of his time-lapse piece (see below).

Chikwendiu had stumbled upon the deer, nearly stepping on it after leaving an assignment at a memorial for a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Vienna, Va. In the foliage, he spotted the startlingly blue eye of the decomposing deer. Unsure of how long the eye would stay that vivid color, he returned and started shooting photos that night.

Although physical traces of the body have disappeared now, Chikwendiu says he thinks about the deer whenever he passes by that cradle of land where water now pools every time it rains.

Chikwendiu’s piece is not the first (and certainly not the last) to address decomposition and death. Perhaps because the theme of decomposition has enormous capacity as a vessel for commentary on the cycle of life, it has been explored thoroughly by practitioners including Frederick Sommer and Sally Mann.

Frederick Sommer’s deviant work pulled from his contemporaries in the surrealist movement and took cues from the photography of decaying objects by Aaron Siskind. But compared with the rest of his photography, which includes mangled chicken parts acquired from the local Piggly Wiggly and skyless landscapes, the photos he made of decaying animals in the 1930s and 1940s are surprisingly kinetic and full of uplifting cues. “Jack Rabbit,” which features the shadow of a rabbit carcass, is photographed from above, a background stretched to the four corners of the frame (as he tended to do) to the exclusion of any sort of sky. But if the piece is devoid of sky in a literal sense, the dirt background becomes an entire galaxy.

“Jack Rabbit,” 1939. (Frederick Sommer/Courtesy of the Frederick & Frances Sommer Foundation)

Conceptual photography project by Tanya Marcuse, imagining the Garden of Eden after the Fall. (Tanya Marcuse/Courtesy of Tanya Marcuse and Hemphill Gallery)

Movement also features prominently in “Coyotes,” which, like many series about decomposition, features a fixation on the textural or graphic qualities of the dead. Is it because the identity of the creature is slipping away? Is an animal still an animal after all that’s left is skin and bones?

Or is it a new creature entirely?

The title of photographer and instigator Mann’s photographs of death, “What Remains,” also investigates this question. (WARNING: The following link contains graphic or disturbing content). It covers the death of her father, her dog and even the “body farm,” an eerie piece of land planted with bodies that decay for University of Tennessee forensics researchers to study.

Each subject has its own personality. Some grip the ground as if afraid of sliding off, while others fake the demure quality of a Titian reclining nude. Is it possible that these postures are figments of their previous selves, or are they subconscious projections of the viewer? In a few instances, Mann even deviates from her trademark style of shooting lush large format black-and-white photos, introducing an alienating shock of color on a few of the bodies — an alarming jerky red.

The understanding of the power of color in the context of decomposition also makes a statement in Tanya Marcuse’s recent series, “Fallen.” The rosy tones of fruit are frosted with mold and nested in by vegetation, insects and mushrooms. Although the bright colors are being encroached on by bottom feeders, the overall harmony of the color palette and composition speaks to the symbiotic nature of the relationship: The death of one is part of the life of the other.

This is the answer to a question posed by Mann in “What Remains.” After her father’s death, she wondered, “Where did all of that him-ness go?” But it’s not that the “him-ness” really ever disappeared. Instead it was transferred to the lives of others, where it thrives.


This video documents the decay of the deer over the next few months. (Jahi Chikwendiu and May-Ying Lam/The Washington Post)

May-Ying Lam is a photo editor at The Washington Post.


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