With Funeral Portraits, a Photographer Gives Dignity to Rural Elderly
Since 2017, Yang Xin and her friends have visited nearly 30 villages in the outskirts of her hometown of Shangluo in the northwestern Shaanxi province. Armed with a DSLR camera, tripod, and reflector, they have taken more than 4,000 funeral portraits of rural villagers.
For most of the villagers, Yang, a 38-year-old veteran photojournalist for a local newspaper, is but the second photographer they have ever encountered — the first was for their ID cards.
“Death is not the end of life, but being forgotten is,” Yang told Sixth Tone, echoing the name of her unique photography project called “A Memory of the Elderly.”
Before the shot is taken, Yang’s team would tidy up their subject, brush dirt off their clothes, and comb their hair. During the preparation stage, they would engage in small talk with the subject in the local dialect, asking about their lives and living conditions.
“We want them to feel relaxed and look as perfect as they can for the camera,” Zhao Dan, Yang’s assistant, told Sixth Tone.
During editing, Yang does not erase any wrinkles or spots, only “clear physical flaws” such as if a villager has a blind eye. “We want it to be a perfect combination of authenticity and decency,” Yang said.
The idea originated from a visit to an elderly villager’s home in 2017 when Yang noticed a memorial tablet made from a paper box for the villager’s late husband. When Yang asked why there was no portrait, the villager responded with a wry smile. “When do elderly villagers take photos of themselves?”
The villager did not respond when Yang asked if she still remembered her husband’s face. “You could tell she was feeling regretful about this,” said Yang. The brief conversation left a deep impression on her, and spurred her on to try to help others have their portraits taken while still possible.
With the closest rudimentary photography store hours away from most villages, the villagers were mostly resigned to not having portraits of their own. The task could not be given to their children either, as most of the younger villagers had migrated to the cities and only spent a few days a year in their hometowns. And very few villagers have smartphones, let alone know how to operate the cameras on them.
Shangluo had a population of 2.5 million people in 2022. Nearly half a million rural residents will leave their villages to be employed elsewhere, official data showed.
“They’ll ask their children to prepare their grave and coffin, but that’s all,” Yang said.
But during her work trips to the countryside, Yang would hear villagers discussing their friends’ funerals and lamenting the absence of a portrait or the quality of the photo. “In their eyes, it is a symbol of dying with dignity,” she said.
The portrait also marks their yearning to be remembered by their family, a “lodestone,” said Yang. “They have worked hard to support their children their whole lives and don’t want to be forgotten.”
In Chinese culture, a portrait of the dead is a key part of a funeral. In a procession, it leads at the front of all the mourners, and at the funeral itself, it is usually placed in a prominent position with other ritual objects.
When Yang launched the photography project, in collaboration with local officials, she feared the sensitive undertone of the event would keep villagers away. Her anxiety quickly turned into astonishment as residents came in droves — some even walking hours from their homes.
“They are actually more enlightened about death than we are,” said Zhao, who has worked on the project since the beginning. As the villagers wait for their turn, they would encourage each other to look more natural or happy to the camera.
Their attitude is a product of their living conditions, said Yang. “They perceive life and death just like they perceive the changing of the seasons.” It is also consistent with local customs, with elderly villagers often picking out their coffins and funeral shrouds well in advance of their deaths.
All the counties in Shangluo were listed as impoverished areas by the central government before 2020, when the country declared a victory in poverty alleviation. In the past seven years, Yang has seen many improvements in the villages as economic support has ramped up, from the paving of concrete roads to the building of street lamps.
And as local industries such as solar energy and herbs emerge in the villages, residents are also receiving cash payments from local authorities.
But extended separation from their children and grandchildren leads to loneliness. The villagers often tell Zhao, 39, that she is treating them better than their own children when she tidies them up for the shooting. “We’re happy that we’re doing something to fill that spiritual gap,” she said.
Yang’s sharing of her experiences on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, has been picked up by domestic media in the past year. A popular influencer even created short video adaptations of her stories. And most gratifyingly for Yang, her videos have inspired others to launch similar projects in their hometowns.
“What old people give us and what we give to old people is actually a process of mutual healing,” Yang said. She plans to continue the project until all the elderly villagers in Shangluo have had their portraits taken.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: A kid points to his grandpa’s portrait during an exhibition event in Xiaoyuan Village, Majie Town, Shangluo, Shaanxi province, Aug. 9, 2023. Courtesy of Yang)