Fearing Death, and Photographing the Rituals That Surround It

Courtesy of the NewYorkTimes.com | By John Otis | Photos by Chanoho Park | 04.30.2019 | 06.02.2018

The question of what awaits after death has obsessed humanity for millennia.

The Korean photographer Chanho Park’s fixation took root when he was 11 and his mother, who suffered from pancreatic cancer, was hospitalized. Much of his time was spent at her side, where he heard the anguished screams of the dying and their mourning families and saw the beds of gaunt patients become empty from one day to the next.

“I began to feel more afraid of the pain and screams that they were experiencing than the death itself,” Mr. Park said.

After his mother died, he was adrift and bereft. Discord with his father led him to run away from home when he was 14. By his late 30s, he fell into depression, which he sought to ease by taking pictures. Without meaning to, he found himself drawn to burial plots, ritual sites, and places of prayer — synonymous with marking the end of life or remembering those who died. While sorting through his photos, he was struck by a commonality: the image of mothers praying.


Credit: Chanho Park

Credit: Chanho Park



“To the tree, to the stone, to the sea, to the stone Buddha, and to the tombstone,” said Mr. Park, explaining that however they prayed, the women had the same wish: that their children were happy. The revelation was so powerful, he said, that it unleashed decades of pent-up pain and yearning for his mother

Afterward, he felt completely healed. But a new burden took its place — the understanding that his own death would bring a similar pain to his wife and children.

“When we recover from the trauma from the deaths of our parents, we face the reality of our own deaths,” Mr. Park said. “Perhaps we live a trauma of death for an entire life.”

To overcome that fear, he needed to better understand it. He considered that the Korean word for “death” also connotes “rebirth.” And he knew that a similar concept — reincarnation — was a tenet of Buddhism and that monks who practice asceticism to attain “buddhahood” have shed their fear of dying.

Credit: Chanho Park

Credit: Chanho Park

Mr. Park set out to capture the elements and rituals of traditional Korean funerals, as well as Confucian and Buddhist rites, in a series he calls “The Returned.” It was important to put the “emotion” and the “enlightenment” of each experience into the frame.

“I hope to search for and think about the meaning of death through the acts on death, acts of remembering death, and the record of those acts,” Mr. Park said.

Since most of what he sought to photograph involved rituals held on sacred ground and sometimes hidden from the outside world, it took time to find and gain access. As an outsider, Mr. Park needed to talk with the “gatekeepers,” people who confided heartbreaking, personal life experiences.

“Their sad stories remained and accumulated in my heart,” said Mr. Park. “Listening to them and photographing them all became too painful.”

Credit: Chanho Park
Credit: Chanho Park
Credit: Chanho Park

He became so overwhelmed at one point, that he was hospitalized and put down his camera for a bit. When Mr. Park resumed the work, he confronted a new question: “How can we exist forever?”

He believes the answer to that is simply: memory.

“We exist as a memory in others’ mind,” he explained. “’How are we going to be remembered?’ It is the same question as: ‘How should we live the rest of our lives?’ Serious thoughts on death could turn the human life from greed and selfishness to respect and sincerity, from worshiping gold to pursuing reason.”

Mr. Park has found solace from the small insights his work has revealed — and from the camera’s therapeutic power.

“I believe that photography has some healing power,” said Mr. Park. “Photography helps us to face the trauma. If one can face his own trauma through my works, I think it can help to heal and cure the trauma.”

Credit: Chanho Park
Credit: Chanho Park
Credit: Chanho Park



Follow @nytimesphoto on Twitter. You can also find Lens on Facebook and Instagram.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.