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Latin America

A dying tradition in Bolivia: photographing the dead

In the early 20th century, postmortem photos were part of the mourning process — a sort of photographic signing off.
20 Abr 2017 – 07:06 PM EDT
'Girl from Guatemala' (1920). Crédito: Photo by Julio Cordero Castillo/Univision

LA PAZ, Bolivia – The 1920 photograph shows a girl on a white sheet, about six or seven years old, wearing a white dress as though it's her first communion, knee-high socks and a tiara on her forehead. She holds a small bouquet of flowers and wears a bangle on her left arm. Her head rests on an embroidered pillow.

She seems to be sleeping. But she is dead. And the photo is surely the last image of her, preserved by her loved ones.

Today stored in the La Paz municipal archives, the photo until recently was part of the collection of glass negatives held by Julio Cordero Benavides, a photographer dedicated to preserving the legacy of two other photographers: his father, Julio Cordero Ordóñez, and his grandfather, Julio Cordero Castillo.

The photos reflect a practice that was popular from the middle of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th: gathering close relatives in the homes of the deceased to take a final photo showing their agony had ended.

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“I guess they wanted the dead to stay with them forever,” Cordero Benavides said one morning as he sat in the yard of his old home on Zoilo Flores street in central La Paz. Now retired, he had a thin mustache and a hearing aid and wore a wool sweater.

“The people closest to the dead used to keep the photos in their desks (away from the curious). I suppose they pulled them out and looked at them when they were sad,” he added.

Postmortem photography started in Paris as a romantic practice at a time when death was not taboo and a corpse was not something bad. The practice arrived in Latin America shortly after the birth of the daguerreotype (1839).

Journalist Miguel Vargas has reported that in Peru in 1844, French photographer P. Daviette advertised his ability to immortalize the dead “like oil paintings.” He also wrote that Julio Cordero Benavides once showed him a letter formally requesting his services.

“I write to you to kindly inform you of the death of my daughter. I would beg you to come to my home to take a photograph of her,” said the letter. The photographer said that last image was sometimes the only photo ever taken of the dead person.

The dead were sometimes posed on chairs, and the images sometimes showed them looking toward the horizon, as though they were refusing to abandon their relatives and friends.

For years, his father and grandfather photographed dwarfs and giants, criminals and prostitutes, leading figures in immaculate suits and peasants with worn sandals and old clothes. They also witnessed the autopsy of one former president and the hanging of another in a jam-packed plaza, as well as the firing-squad execution of a Spaniard sentenced to death for the murder of a well-known jeweler.

Although the Cordero family specialized in Memento Mori – Latin for “remember you will die” – its members didn't take the most famous postmortem photo in Bolivian history. That was the work of the late Freddy Alborta, a news photographer who took the famous image of the corpse of Ernesto "Che" Guevara when it was put on public display in the town of Vallegrande after the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary was killed by the military in 1967. The town is still visited by dozens of leftist pilgrims each year.

Che looks like a god in one of Alborta's photos. His hair disheveled, his torso naked, his eyes seemingly open. The news photographer felt uneasy when he stood in front of the body because “he seemed to be alive.” He moved quietly around the bizarre scene until he captured the perfect image.

Months later, British novelist John Berger compared Alborta's photo with a Rembrandt painting, The anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

Like the photo of “Che” Guevara, the Corderos' postmortem photos are almost like canvas paintings -- a date with death, in a kind of limbo.

“They are very beautiful. They are continuity. They are the reminiscence of what was, of the person who is gone,” writer Paul Tellería said one afternoon during a chat in a half-empty cafe. He's wearing dark pants and the thick eyeglasses of a bibliophile.

“In their photos, you sense that death has been suspended,” he adds. “When you look at them, you think time has stopped. It's like there's no time other than that.”

Tellería said the “photo finishes” represent a dramatic contrast with today's culture surrounding death.

“In the old days, the families had photos taken of their baby a few days after their birth, of the boy or girl on the day of their first communion, of the young man after his military service and of the deceased on the death bed." Everything was more intimate then, he says.

“Now, however, the photos we usually save on our cell phones are more social, more playful, a copy of the lives of others, pure imitation, a fake."

“In the social networks today there are people committing suicide. There are videos and images showing people decapitated by the drug cartels. And the web pages showing them get thousands of visits and comments,” the researcher added. “Photography is no longer a vehicle for mourning. It is purely a circus."

This text is part of the book 'Rigor mortis. La normalidad es la muerte,' published by Editorial El Cuervo.