This Photographer Spent a Decade Shooting Cryonics Enthusiasts
Murray Ballard has documented everyone from amateur cryonicists in the UK to America's "father of cryonics".
From 2006 to 2015, British photographer Murray Ballard investigated cryogenics, the act of freezing a body in the hope that one day it will be revived. Recently, Murray's endeavours – which took him around the UK, US and Russia – were published as a book, The Prospect of Immortality, by GOST (you can pick up a signed copy here).
I caught up with him to discuss the project's roots, what items participants wanted to take into the future and the hope of a better tomorrow.
VICE: Hi Murray. How did this decade-long endeavour begin?
Murray Ballard: I started the project in 2006 when I was studying photography at the University of Brighton. I was working on a project around the theme of "preservation". I had a list of subjects to photograph: Egyptian mummies, taxidermy, seed banks, libraries, museum archives, embalming. Cryogenic preservation was also on that list, although then I thought it only existed in the realms of science fiction. I started the project by photographing a taxidermist at the local natural history museum, but I wasn't that excited by the pictures – I knew the subject had been well photographed before.
A few days later, I was leafing through The Guardian and came across an article; it told the story of a French family who had attempted their own cryonics experiment with a modified industrial freezer in the cellar of their chateau. Their experiment had come to an end, but the article went on to mention there was an organisation in the United States that offered a more professional form of cryonics. I immediately wanted to jump on a plane and see this place for myself, but, as a student, it was beyond my means, so instead I started photographing a group of cryonicists in the UK. Eventually, when I got funding, I made my first trip to the States in October of 2006. The project grew from there.
From what you observed, how did participants manage to reconcile religious faith in an afterlife with a prospective means to achieve life after death?
I haven't met many religious cryonicists. However, quite a few have told me that they don't see a conflict, and liken cryonics to any other life-saving technology, such as CPR. I only really witnessed people with a religious faith involved with cryonics in Russia. The first cryonics patient in Russia was a neuro-patient, so only her head was cryopreserved; her body was buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of St Petersburg. This was in 2005. I wasn't there for the preservation, but I visited the grave with the patient's daughter in 2009. She was clearly religious, as she spent some time praying by her mother's grave. On another trip to Russia a year later, I witnessed a cryopreservation where the patient was frozen with prayer cards and candles. In both cases I wasn't able to talk to the patient's family because of the language barrier, but it seems some people can reconcile the two things.
What sense did you get of how participants considered their day-to-day lives in comparison to what they were hoping for?
Perhaps it goes without saying, but most cryonicists are very optimistic about the future. They think their life in the future will be a big improvement on their current day-to-day life and cite history as a way of suggesting this will be the case. As to what form this life in the future will take, most acknowledge that it is very difficult to predict. Of course, some cryonicists have mentioned flying cars, artificial intelligence and living on other planets, but most veer away from making specific predictions.
Interestingly, Robert Ettinger, the "father of cryonics", told me he used to make grand statements about life in the future, hoping it would inspire people to sign up, but he realised it was a mistake. He thinks it scared people – they fear the unknown. He told me most people just want more of the same, without some of the discomforts and inconveniences of the present day.
To you, is there a most important shot of the series?
One of the most important pictures for me is "Fred's suitcase". I often ask cryonicists what possessions they would like to keep for their life in the future. Most say something like, "I haven't really thought about that yet," or, "I'm not really that interested in keeping possessions – what use will they be in the future?" But in 2012 I met Fred. He was 80 at the time and had lost his wife a few years earlier. He decided to sign up to cryonics and had packed up his life in Ohio to live near the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, so he could be near the facility when his time comes.
When I asked him what possessions he would like to keep for the future, he led me down into the basement of the house he was living in and pointed to a suitcase on some shelves in the corner. I took it off the shelves and opened it up on the floor. It was full of photographs. Fred's whole life in pictures, from his first drum kit – he had been a drummer in a jazz band – to a framed photograph of his wife. I don't know if that represents the whole project, but for me it comes close to representing something at the core of what this project is all about.
What would be another topic you'd like to cover in such depth?
I would like to do a project about Transhumanism, the growing movement that believes we can, and should, improve the human condition through the use of advance technology. I guess it's an obvious follow up. The difficulty is working out how to approach it, as many of the ideas are yet to exist.
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See more photos from The Prospect of Immortality below:
Catstat, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan. March 2007.
Aaron Drake, Medical Response Director, prepares stabilisation medications to be used during the initial stages of a cryopreservation. Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona. August 2009.
Patient storage demonstration, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona. August 2009.
Margaret Kiseleva holding a photograph of her mother, Ludmila, at the KrioRus facility, Alabushevo, Moscow. September 2010.
DNA archive at the home of David and Ellen Styles, Macclesfield, Cheshire. February 2009.
Cryostats, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan. April 2010.