Tamil Nadu: The Indian men who photographed dead bodies – BBC.com

Warning: This story contains images and descriptions of dead bodies
Ravindran was 14 years old when his father Srinivasan, who ran a photography studio, sent him on an assignment.
"My job was to put a dead body on a chair and make it sit straight," says Ravindran about his first day at work in 1972.
"I then had to lift its eyelids so the photographer could take a picture."
Richard Kennedy was just nine when he had a similarly unnerving experience. He was asked to hold up a white cloth as a backdrop behind a chair on which a corpse was seated.
"I was scared and shaking. That night, I couldn't sleep at all," he told the BBC. "For many nights, I had a recurring nightmare in which the dead person appeared. It was dreadful."
Both men became photographers because their fathers owned photo studios. Between them, they have taken photos of more than 1,000 dead people.
They are among a dwindling number of photographers who once specialised in taking photos of the dead in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Until a few decades ago, many of its communities believed that being photographed would shorten your lifespan – so many people had their first photo taken only after they died.
The two men spoke to the BBC about their unusual, unsettling work, which was a well-paying occupation in the 1970s and 1980s.
Ravindran, who uses only one name, says that as a teenager he found the job unpleasant – but he wanted to drop out of school and this was a good excuse.
"After a few months of training, I went alone to take photos of dead people," he said.
He gradually developed his own techniques – such as propping up a corpse's head with a pillow, adjusting clothes if needed and changing the background.
"I battled my fear and started liking my job. I made dead bodies look good and real in photos."
Richard Kennedy would accompany his father to work in the Yercaud hills, about 350km (about 217 miles) west of Tamil Nadu's capital, Chennai.
His most difficult experience involved photographing a dead newborn baby.
''The parents were devastated. The mother was crying inconsolably."
But after he arrived with his camera, the mother bathed and dressed the baby in a new gown and applied some make-up.
"The baby looked like a doll," he remembers. "The mother placed the baby on her lap and I took the photo. It looked like the baby was sleeping.
"That was very emotional."
They also photographed other ceremonies like washing the body and decorating it with flowers. While some families were happy with one or two photos, others were more demanding.
"I even went to a burial ground and photographed the moment when the body was being placed in the grave," recalls Ravindran.
They worked on tight deadlines, sometimes developing and printing photos overnight if grieving families asked for a framed photograph of the dead for mourning rituals the next day.
Both Ravindran and Richard used relatively unsophisticated cameras which took black-and-white photos.
Their customers were mostly Hindus and Christians. Some of them still keep the photos of their dead relatives in their prayer rooms.
Richard also worked for the police department, where he took pictures of unnatural deaths – victims of crimes, suicides and road accidents – where the bodies were often badly mutilated.
"It was very disturbing. Sometimes I couldn't eat or sleep."
His photos were used as evidence in court and helped families get compensation.
The photographers could charge double their usual fee to take pictures of dead bodies and also got generous tips from relatives. But there was considerable stigma associated with their macabre line of work.
"Many people were reluctant to hire me for any other job," Richard says.
Ravindran's Hindu family treats places associated with death as impure, so he had to undergo a mandatory cleansing before entering his home or studio.
"I needed to take a bath every time. My dad would even sprinkle some water over my camera before taking it inside the studio."
The practice of taking photos after death used to be prevalent in many countries. In the mid-19th Century, many grief-stricken families posed with their dead children and other relatives.
Taking a picture of a dead body was a way for families to remember their loved ones at a time when photos were expensive and many people didn't have any images of themselves.
In the US, the photos were often taken inside houses with the dead body placed over a block of ice. Death portraiture was also popular in Victorian Britain.
But the practice faded away in many parts of the world in the 20th Century – perhaps as healthcare improved life expectancy – although it lasted longer in Tamil Nadu and other Indian states such as West Bengal and Odisha (Orissa) as well as in the holy city of Varanasi.
Richard sees these images as a logical extension of portraiture, which was once popular among the rich.
"Before the advent of photography, big landlords used to commission artists to paint their portraits.
"Photography was an extension of that practice intended to preserve the memory. Only the rich had enough money to commission a portrait, but even poor people could afford a photograph."
But in the late 1980s, cheaper, easy-to-use cameras flooded the market and people lost their fear of being photographed.
As demand for his services fell, Richard switched to covering church events and festivals.
Ravindran concentrated on school events and public programmes. He eventually became a wedding photographer.
Now in his sixties, he is thankful to the dead who helped him learn the trade and overcome his fear of death. But he is clear about one thing.
"I don't want anyone to take a photo of me after my death," he says.
Unlike Ravindran, Richard, now 54, still keeps a huge collection of photos of the dead, including family members.
"Our family always preserved the photos of our ancestors. I told my youngest son he should take a photo after my death and that it should be part of the family heritage."
Taken from life: Victorian death photos
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