‘Freezer failure ends couple’s hopes of life after death’. Ten years ago, a headline caught Murray Ballard’s eye. “I’d become really interested in the idea of photography as a tool of preservation, a way of preserving the world, and I’d made a list of subjects – taxidermists, seed banks, embalmers, museum archives, Egyptian mummies, libraries, the ways that human beings preserve histories. And on that list was cryogenic preservation.” The article, about a Frenchman called Raymond Martinot who had frozen his wife, and in turn been frozen by his son, sparked Ballard’s epic project about cryonics, published in book form this month.
From that moment, Ballard became obsessed with photographing people around the world pursuing the dream of a second life through being frozen. Ballard was able to gain access to groups in the UK, America and Russia, and met Robert Ettinger, the ‘father of cryonics’. Ettinger, a physics teacher and science fiction writer, believed that cryonic preservation was a logical solution to ‘the problem of death’, and was convinced that it would be as common as burial by the 21st century. Ballard’s project, given the same title as Ettinger’s 1962 book ‘The Prospect of Immortality’ is almost an account of the state of cryonics now, a time which Ettinger considered ‘the future’.
It’s a strange thing, freezing dead people. But for Ballard, cryonics is just the beginning. “What’s kept me interested in cryonics for so long is that it’s a subject which everyone engages in. I came round to thinking about cryonics as almost like a piece of performance art. It’s an experiment, it’s a way of talking about the future. It’s all about the ‘what if?’ It leads to all these conversations about the future and where we’re going as a society.”
“What I love about photographs is that they are so fragmentary and they’re all about limitation. The viewer has to think. You look at a photograph and it’s all about what you bring to it. I think it was Stephen Shore who said that large format ‘is the closest to what it’s like to stand in the world’. I’m trying to present the viewer with a picture that seems objective because then I think that they will be more inclined to look at the photographs as evidence of the thing that’s there.”
“For a long time I was chasing a cryopreservation, something which happens very rarely. I was there with my large format camera, trying to catch this thing happening very fast. The body is covered, and they’re doing as quickly as possible, because the sooner the body is cooled and in a vat of liquid nitrogen, the better.” But Ballard found his focus changed in 2010, when on a trip to Russia his girlfriend’s mother died very suddenly. “It changed my whole relationship to the project. It was a hell of a shock, which made me have a really strong emotional response to the project. And I wanted to put that into the work. I became aware that loss is a sad, hard thing.”
“It put the importance back onto the portraits in the project and I became less concerned with photographing the very moment that someone was cryopreserved. Later that year, the Russian group suspended four patients, but they didn’t have a cryostat like the Americans, so they put them in a temporary cool-down box. If I have a favourite picture, it’s the one of that large box, because it kind of embodies the whole subject. The box has four bodies in it.”
Despite the images and text being presented in as objective and unopinionated way as possible, we the viewers can see portraits and still-life images interspersed with empty spaces and make a narrative, form an idea of the cryonics community and their aspirations for a better, brighter future. It’s a future which patients anticipate waking up to after an unknown time ‘asleep’. The book ends with a photograph of Robert Ettinger asleep in his chair, alongside this quote; “The tired old man, then will close his eyes, and he can think of his impending temporary death as another period under an anaesthesia in the hospital. Centuries may pass but to him there will be only a moment of sleep without dreams.”
During the course of Ballard’s project, the number of people who have been cyropreserved has doubled to 200, and the number of people signed up for cryonics has grown to around 2000. Ettinger’s dream of a cryonics facility in every town, village and city has hardly come to fruition, but the ‘what if?’ is still there.
Lottie Davies, Professional Photography #8, May 2016