Interview – Ellen Rogers
Through her photography, Ellen Rogers (1983, Norfolk, United Kingdom) uses mythological and religiously inspired themes in an almost ethereal way. She uses traditional techniques in her work, like hand coloring her analogue prints, and thereby gives them new dimensions. I have been following Ellen’s work for many years now and am thrilled to share this interview with you where she tells me about her insights into the ultimate unknown – that which is never possible to capture, but which lingers on in her art so clearly as well as all the other extremes of the human experience: death.
What is death to you?
Ellen: I suppose death is what I come from, in as much as it’s what I’ll return to. I don’t remember what I was before I was here, so logic dictates that I’m not likely to remember after. But the reality for me is: I just don’t know.
That sounds obtuse and I’ve been thinking of the least po-faced way of saying the same thing, but nothing came out right. To expand, I often think the idea of death as being tangible – with concepts such as heaven and hell, or on the flip side, a vein sort of celestial game over or black space – is just that of religious assumption on either side. That is to say, I consider the atheistic view of death as religious as the religious view itself.
I think the danger of the word “belief” is that it involves a level of hubris I just can’t quite muster. Belief makes the leap of faith that suggests one knows objective fact without having any evidence of proof. I remain optimistic or I remain agnostic. The most tangible way I can see death is directly related to the question: What is consciousness?
Have you lost anyone, or been close to dying yourself?
I had a baptism of fire that confirmed the already melancholic view I always had. In some way I felt ready for death, and mourning since childhood and was cursed with the disposition of mourning a person I love whilst they live. A horrible disposition I could unlearn, but have yet to conquer.
I went home to visit my mother seven years ago and without warning I watched her die. It was a shock that not even my own sense of private mourning had prepared me for. A good friend of mine, Carlos Thomas, a like minded artist, also took his life two years ago. I felt, genuinely, like I had lost two people I was talking directly to with my art. Two people I made work for to converse with.
“Once you face death a few times, you start to realise in whatever capacity that you cannot remain so violently attached to the psychically of transient nature.”
How have these experiences influenced your life or the way you perceive it?
On a really basic level, once you face death a few times, you start to realise in whatever capacity that you cannot remain so violently attached to the psychically of transient nature.
In a more ethereal sense, I still feel my mother, in the same way that I felt her in my life when I was not psychically talking to, or seeing her whilst she was alive. I think certain people become part of you, much like the phenomena of not seeing or talking to a best friend in years, yet the dynamics fit exactly back in place once you are reunited.
How has your perception of death changed over the course of your life?
My mother verged on Pagan and my upbringing was of a military background – where I am, that means Church of England – so the input was postmodern and for the most part, eclectic.
My view as it feels to me, is that religion takes on many forms and really can be more of a filler of voids than a belief in a deity. Such as the belief that popularity or money can make you feel more fulfilled, when otherwise you might feel alienated. This is a sociological question. As for the direct influence that religion has played, no, I never was engrossed in the basic scare mongering of Christian dogma. And as I recall I’ve always envisaged how I might deal with a death on my own accord. Spirituality aside from religion is important for me. The mysticism without the dogma.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
Again, without sounding obtuse (I sound obtuse), I don’t tend to believe. I can say I what I feel, but that’s as illogical as my taste in food. Which isn’t to say it’s wacky or wild in any way, it’s just that I’m disposed to having a preference my nature and upbringing dictates.
I feel that I was never born and that I’ll never die. I watch a screen that changes.
In the same way that I watch a film: the people are real, the story exists, but my participation is that of a viewer. The reincarnation in this instance is the watching of a new film. Within the story of my life there is death, but I just don’t know what that means on a grand scale. It feels like I am a character I’ve become engrossed in, but that could also be my own issues with disassociation.
Have you ever been in contact with a deceased person or experienced anything paranormal?
I’ll tell you a story. On my Mother’s death bed I told her I was to marry my ex-boyfriend in a place very special to us both, in the Peak District. I realised later I had unknowingly lied, and once our long term relationship failed I felt the weight of grief of having told my mother something so unwise.
I decided to tell her in my own mind that I was never to marry. I decided to out of spiritual confusion, madness and a haze of tears, to tell her this in the very place that I’d informed her about. I went with my friend Tim to the Peaks, I stood in the place I loved and said in my mind, ‘Mum I won’t marry here’. I left in tears and I left relieved.
The next day Tim and I went to a party, a small family gathering in the most friendly and spirited of northern villages. The front door of the house was left open and friends and family poured in with trays of food. My spirits where lifted, having told my mother what I needed to. Next, a beautiful woman around the age of about 60 with a shock of blonde hair in a short bob walked in, looked at me, and quickly ran out of the room. I thought this was quite strange.
The next day when I had travelled home, Tim told me that the beautiful women wanted to talk to me and could he pass on my number. I said he could. I got the call, her name was Maisy and she had the most gorgeous accent, one I missed a great deal at the time. It was the accent that belonged to a man I once loved and the town I had left. Maisy asked me if I was sitting down, I said I was. She asked me if I had just lost a female loved one. I said I had, she asked if it was my grandmother, I said it was my mother. She said in quite a matter of fact way that my mother was with me. That her presence was overwhelming, and that she thanks me for saying what I said. She said very genuinely that I was so protected by this presence and that it was so persistent that she would not leave Maisy alone until she told me that I was loved.
I asked Tim if he mentioned to anyone why I was back up north. He swore he hadn’t told a soul.
I had assumed she’d read my feelings, my feelings of depression. Whatever the case, it’s an experience that moved me.
Your photographs often have an otherworldly atmosphere. How do your views on life and death inspire you and how do you integrate this into your art?
In the past I operated solely on instinct. Some kind of primordial mythos that drew me in. Now that I’m older I think it’s more of a dissection of that autonomy, perhaps the ideology should be left out. It’s an analysis of spiritually, politics, mythology, sex and death. Perhaps I grew bored of the connection I had to the automatic work and now I need arrogantly to understand it, which ironically takes me further from it. They all seem to me best felt than scrutinised, yet I plunder on.
The literal theme of death is something I’ve always toyed with. I suppose as a visual image it appears to me as something quite liberating or arousing, and dare I say… sexual.
In certain cultures people believe that by taking an analogue photo, you literally capture a person’s soul. Do you ever experience this in a similar way in your work?
I think the idea of the soul is interesting, in as much as it’s a Western religious idea of a consciousness being individual and separate from the corporeal. I like the idea in a romantic sense, but in theory it never held up to me. But my version of it is transposable. For example, when I photograph someone I can’t distinguish myself from them, they and I for that time are intrinsically connected.
The idea of capturing or stealing has connections to tourism. That is to say that you are taking from something you don’t understand and you are transposing yourself. It’s a colonialist lens. I suppose this is why I never take an image of a person who did not give me their consent and I avoid participating personally with documentary photography, particularly if I’m an outsider.
“When I photograph someone I can’t distinguish myself from them, they and I for that time are intrinsically connected.”
Do you ever consciously think about the art you leave behind after you have died?
I’d be lying if I’d say I hadn’t thought egoistically about leaving a legacy. But whether or not it matters to me, no I don’t think so. Not anymore. I’m a hypocrite though, I’m so protective of my precious paper objects that it borders of commodity fetishism and that needs to be dismantled. I see my photos as children that will need a parent.
Do you find it easy to talk about the subject of death?
Absolutely, it’s no bother to me at all: in fact I would go so far to say morbidity in some capacity is part of my daily life. In person I’m a fairly smiley individual. I think it has something to do with a phenomenon I have mentioned in passing, that I am the stock type of person who visualises things a great deal. So I had visualised death amongst many things many times before I encountered it face to face.
Do you have any ideas or wishes for your own funeral?
A friend asked me this same question recently having discovered a plant you could combine with your ashes to have it grow into a tree. I think it is a sweet idea ,but I’d be too worried about the person having to look after that plant and the monumental responsibly they would feel to keep it alive – so nothing like that. I really don’t know just yet. I think it would likely be something utilitarian: cardboard box, cremation, nothing too flash.
All image credits: Ellen Rogers – The images displayed here are part of her ongoing ‘Gnosis’ project.