Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
For his series The Washing Away of Wrongs, photographer Robert Shults went where few living people have gone: the 26-acre Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University (FACTS), the world’s largest outdoor facility where human decomposition is studied through donated cadavers. This data can help identify the unnamed dead, reveal the time of death of a victim, or measure how topography impacts the rate of decomposition. The Austin-based photographer’s challenge was to portray the daily research of the undergraduate and graduate students on the Freeman Ranch, who come face-to-face with all stages of mortal decay, without sensationalizing this often gruesome work.
“I spent essentially every in-session day for about a year at the center, sat in on classes, took a few myself, accompanied the graduate students on donation pickups and forensic cases, and basically went everywhere they went,” Shults told Hyperallergic. The photographs in the series, named for the oldest-known forensic scientific text, a 13th-century Chinese coroners’ book by Song Ci, were taken between 2015 and 2016. Selections were shared earlier this year by the New York Times and Wired, and you can find the full portfolio on his website (although be warned that some photographs are more graphic than those in this post). Shults explained that he’s now developing text in collaboration with a couple of anthropologists for a future book.
As in Shults’s 2014 monograph The Superlative Light, previously covered on Hyperallergic, on the University of Texas’s subterranean Petawatt Laser lab, the black-and-white images in The Washing Away of Wrongs, shot in the near-infrared spectrum, give the FACTS researchers a science fiction quality. While for the Pettawatt lab he described his perspective as that of an “awestruck outsider,” for the decomposition facility Shults tried to offer “something approximating a first person view, a sense of what it feels like not to observe this work, but rather to actually undertake this difficult mission.”
One of the initiatives at FACTS is Operation Identification, aimed at identifying bodies of suspected migrants found around the US-Mexico border. In one of Shults’s images, scraps of migrants’ weathered clothing are stretched out on the ground to dry. The students in the photographs, many of whom are young women, approach the remains with a quiet respect, often with notepad in hand as they analyze mummified limbs or exhumed bones. The donor bodies are all framed to protect their identities, leading to haunting moments like a hand resting on soapy skin, flowers from a nearby tree fallen upon the recently deceased’s soft, decomposing flesh.
“It may seem paradoxical, but that is a process virtually teeming with life as new microbiomes rise and fall during decomposition,” Shults stated. “There is an astounding range of plants and animals that depend on the donors’ bodies as a critical part of their own life cycle. As such, when I visit the facility, I don’t really feel the presence of death hanging over the ranch. Rather I get the most palpable sense I’ve felt anywhere of how an individual contributes to the lineage of natural history. I know it may seem odd on its face, but actively observing in real-time the reiteration of a human life is, frankly, beautiful.”