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Photos of My Grandfather Dying

Earlier this year, my mother's father died of cancer. It was the first time someone in my family was going to die, and since I had a hard time dealing with the imminence of death, I decided to document the final months of his life.

by Johann Bouché-Pillon
Sep 10 2014, 4:30am

A portrait of my maternal grandparents. My grandfather had just been diagnosed with cancer.

These photos were taken over a period of five months, starting in December 2013, when my grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was the first time someone in my family was going to die, and since I had a hard time dealing with the imminence of death, I decided to document the final months of his life. In order to do this, I returned three times to the countryside where I grew up and where my family lives (a small village in Burgundy, France)—the third time the culmination, with the funeral.

I had a very hard time accepting the idea of death—I couldn't even attend the funeral due to an anxiety attack—so I found solace behind the lens, documenting all the different aspects of this final event in someone's life. During my visits to the hospital, I often walked around the wards, meeting other patients and coming across the same themes that my family and I were confronted with during this period: alienation, agony, abandonment, and also eventual numbness, acceptance, and inner peace.

But to me the central theme of this series is the wait. In The Stranger, Camus starts by saying, "Maman died today." Nowadays, this kind of detachment and finality are uncommon—despite the certainty of death, we are all stuck waiting in an aging society, with medicine that prolongs our lives but doesn't necessarily make them better.

Statues at the home of the author's grandparents

Click here to view all of the photos.

VICE: How close were you to your granddad? What kind of a man was he?
Johann Bouché-Pillon: Out of all my grandparents, he was the one I was closest to. He was a very warm person, he loved cooking meals for the family and taking care of his garden, and it's from him that I learned to love these things also—what some might call the "simple pleasures of life."

Did the project bring you closer to him? Some of the photos are unbearably sad. I can't imagine being that close to someone you love while they're suffering so much.
In the beginning, around the time I took the first picture, he didn't know he was going to die—the doctor had only told my mother, so he was still himself. Documenting his last months didn't necessarily bring me any closer to him, though. It just helped prepare me for what came after.

How did the disease affect his personality? Was he still capable of humor once he knew it was terminal?
When he was told that he was going to die, his humor understandably deteriorated with the disease, so he became difficult to be around, up to the point where he had to be hooked to morphine—albeit in "agony."

In the text you sent me, you talk a lot about the idea of death and having a hard time accepting it. During the project, were you forced to wrestle with any thoughts about the possibility of an afterlife? Are you a religious person at all?
Personally, I'm not a religious person, and I've never believed in the afterlife. I found all the rituals surrounding the death of my grandfather a bit forced, in the sense that they seemed to me as pragmatic as the payment of the hospital fees or the rent of the hearse—just another thing that needed to be done.

Finally, how do you feel emotionally when people look at these photos? How have others responded?
I haven't shown it to many people, but I've been surprised by the reaction of those I have shown it to. I was expecting a bit of a backlash due to the nature of the subject, but I have gotten mostly positive comments.

Taking these pictures was obviously a very intense experience—you're so close to the "end," so to speak, and you're capturing a moment that might be the last in someone's life. Sharing this series with people allows me to better preserve that feeling.

Okay. Thanks, Johann.

Find more of Johann's work at his website.

Click through to view the photos.



In the nursing home

Brave old world

Raymonde, my great-aunt, at the nursing home

My great-aunt's roommate, Babette

The grip





Tomb of my grandfather

The peacock

Visiting my grandparents' home—dead cat