Of all the weird things I’ve asked people to do with me, I think this one takes the cake.
On one of my annual visits to India I went on a motorcycle tour. It came highly recommended and we were told it would be a really fun time. And it was, but not in the way we expected. We visited the Mother Theresa house, Garbage Mountain (where our motorcycle broke down in front of a pile of dead dogs), a cemetery, and finally, a funeral pyre.
We sat witness to a funeral and cremation of a man and saw the family gathered, grieving but also celebrating. It felt wrong to be there, and we soon asked to leave so that the family could have privacy, though the funeral space was open to the public.
On that same trip, I watched a a hearse went down the street, carrying the dead in a glass car so that everyone could look in.
I started to realize that death in India isn’t the same as death in America. That death in so many cultures is less taboo. Sometimes death is a celebration; sometimes it is a cause for weeks long mourning. Sometimes we put a wall between us and it, or sometimes a thick, ornate wooden box. Sometimes, that box is made of glass, and sometimes those in mourning ask others, strangers, to join in with them.
Death is not such an easy thing to grasp once you’ve started traveling and understanding other cultures. This peek into how death is treated in India gave me pause, and started me thinking about death as a subject for serious introspection. Two years later, the idea for this series was born.
Though these images will not be featured in the final series, it was one necessary step in my exploration. These images were inspired by that glass car in India, and serves as a window – or really, an invitation – to get a little closer to death.
The experience of this photo shoot was all of these things: hilarious, freezing, difficult, dangerous (at times), and above all, absolutely wild.
I had an amazing team helping me. And when I say helping, I mean doing a lot, if not most, of the heavy lifting. My friend Dave Junion had the coffin made locally and we used his forest, his fork lift, and his building skills to get it strung up in the tree. Dan McClanahan lent us his height and strength as we tied the coffin to the trees. KD Stapleton took behind the scenes images and drove some of the heavy machinery. And Randy Verhasselt worked the fog machine and helped work out the electrical wiring.
Not least of all, Payton Bottomley, our model, fearlessly got into that coffin. I got in first to test it, and we did put it through some rigorous testing to make sure she would be okay. She didn’t flinch at the idea, and remained excited before, during, and after the shoot.
Step 1: Put the coffin on a fork lift.
Step 2: Drive the fork lift into the forest.
Step 3: Tie rope onto two trees after the distance has been measured.
Step 4: Raise the coffin to the height of the rope and attach.
Step 5: Pray. (Just kidding, mostly).
Step 6: Set up the heater underneath the coffin to warm it and set up the the fog machine.
Step 7: Test shots.
Step 8: Get model in place.
Step 9: Shoot from every conceivable angle…because we are not doing this again.
Step 10: Hot chocolate and high fives.
And so the shoot went. It took 3 hours from start to finish. It was a beautiful day, absolutely frigid, and we laughed so much we cried.
Do you want to know the secret to getting people to do weird stuff with you? Acknowledge that their contribution is worthwhile and appreciated. Be weird…as weird as you genuinely are. People love to hang out with weirdos. Create. Being part of a true artistic creation process is priceless, and a lot of people will recognize that. Give your energy and passion, and you will attract people who are looking to ignite their own energy and passion.
That’s my secret. I am wildly passionate and energetic about life, and I never fail to find friends who want to help me bring my visions to life. Though these images aren’t going in the series, they will remain a testament to what can be accomplished when your passionate vision gets loosed on the world.