BY: THE PLAID ZEBRA
Photographer Walter Schels refused to see his mother after she died. Like most, he was petrified of death. So he sought to conquer his fear in a way he knew how. Confront death with his lens. Walter Schels began travelling to hospices, and spending time with those who had so little of it left. What he found was that he wasn’t just confronting something within himself, his work was allowing his subjects come to terms with something inside themselves. Walter Schels would often be racing against the hearse to capture the final fragments of human identity.
Gerda Strech, 67
First portrait: January 5 2003
Gerda couldn’t believe that cancer was cheating her of her hard-earned retirement. “My whole life was nothing but work, work, work,” she told me. She had worked on the assembly line in a soap factory, and had brought up her children single-handedly. “Does it really have to happen now? Can’t death wait?” she sobbed.
Died: January 14 2003
On one visit Gerda said, “It won’t be long now”, and was panic-stricken. Her daughter tried to console her, saying: “Mummy, we’ll all be together again one day.” “That’s impossible,” Gerda replied. “Either you’re eaten by worms or burned to ashes.” “But what about your soul?” her daughter pleaded. “Oh, don’t talk to me about souls”, said her mother in an accusing tone. “Where is God now?”
Edelgard Clavey, 67
First portrait: December 5 2003
Edelgard was divorced in the early eighties, and lived on her own from then on; she had no children. From her early teens she was an active member of the Protestant church. She contracted cancer about a year before she died, and towards the end she was bed-bound. Once she was very ill she felt she was a burden to society and really wanted to die.
Died: January 4 2004
“Death is a test of one’s maturity. Everyone has got to get through it on their own. I want very much to die. I want to become part of that vast extraordinary light. But dying is hard work. Death is in control of the process, I cannot influence its course. All I can do is wait. I was given my life, I had to live it, and now I am giving it back”.
Beate Taube, 44
First portrait: January 16 2004
Beate had been receiving treatment for breast cancer for four years, but by the time we met she had had her final course of chemotherapy, and knew she was going to die. She had even been to see the grave where she was to be buried.
Died: March 10 2004
Beate felt that leaving her husband and children behind would be too difficult and painful if they were with her. At the moment of her death she was entirely alone — her husband was in the kitchen making a cup of coffee. He told me later that he was disappointed that he couldn’t be with her, holding her hand, but he knew this is what she had always said, that dying alone would be easier for her.
Peter Kelling, 64
First portrait: November 29 2003
Peter Kelling had never been seriously ill in his life. He was a civil servant working for the health and safety executive, and didn’t allow himself any vices. And yet one day he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. By the time I met him, the cancer had spread to his lungs, his liver and his brain. “I’m only 64,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t be wasting away like this.”
Died: December 22 2003
At night he was restless, he told me, and kept turning things over in his mind. He cried a lot. But he didn’t talk about what was troubling him. In fact he hardly talked at all and his silence felt like a reproach to those around him. But there was one thing that Peter Kelling followed to the very last and that was the fortunes of the local football team. Until the day he died, every game was recorded on the chart on the door of his room.
Barbara Gröne, 51
First portrait: November 11 2003
All her life, Barbara had been plagued by the idea that she has no right to be alive. She had been an unwanted baby: soon after her birth, her mother had put her into a home. But she had a strong survival instinct, and became very focused, she said, very disciplined in the way she lived. After much hard work, it seemed that life was at last delivering her a better hand.
Died: November 22 2003
But then the cancer struck: an ovarian tumour, which had already spread to her back and pelvis. Nothing could be done. Abruptly her old fears returned: the familiar sense of worthlessness and sadness. At the end of her life, Barbara told me that she was overwhelmed by these feelings. “All my efforts were in vain”, she said. “It is as though I am being rejected by life itself.”
All images © Walter Schels