In many parts of the world, a photograph of the deceased is affixed to a tombstone as a way of better remembering those lost. But this image, which is literally a monument of love, immediately begins to fade away. Renowned critic Roland Barthes points out that any printed photograph is impermanent: “Like a living flourishes a moment, then ages. Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes.” Ironically, the photograph intended as a method of permanent remembrance becomes a trenchant reminder of the opposite: despite our best efforts to immortalize a life, it will ultimately vanish.

And what is lost when the image, which sought immortality, fades away? It is not only the memory of an individual, but according to Barthes, love. In his classic work about photography, Camera Lucida, he writes, “It is love-as-treasure which is going to disappear one will any longer be able to testify to this, nothing will remain but an indifferent nature.” This, for Barthes, is “a laceration so intense” as to be “intolerable.”

We initiated Amoris Monumentum several years ago, well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But by making death -- and the memory of those who have been lost -- a part of our everyday experience, the pandemic has added a layer of meaning to the project. Cemeteries offer the opportunity to experience a photograph as a monument to the death of a specific individual. But they are also a piercing reminder that, as the tragic reality of death is inscribed for the person in the photograph, it is also inscribed for all of us, who are moment by moment closer to the same fate.

Barthes was one of the first to posit that our fascination with photography stems from its unique relationship with death. Every photograph captures a moment in time, and once preserved, reminds us on a deep and unavoidable level that the moment is now in the past. According to Barthes, all the photographers busily working to capture reality are on a futile chase: a photograph is an “image which produces death while trying to preserve life.”

As artists, we visit cemeteries often. It is an important and overlooked way of connecting to the history of a place and its people. And by capturing some of the portraits on tombstones, many in the midst of a spectacular or even ecstatic state of decay, we respectfully and with a sense of awe and wonder, extend their memories a bit longer. We cannot stop the flow of time or the loss of life, but we can pay tribute to the fact that these individuals lived -- and celebrate the fact that they loved. And we can mourn what is likely the greatest tragedy of human existence: the moment there is no trace of a very real love that once meant the world to living souls.

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