.:.OF BEAUTY AND SALVATION.:.
Interview with Paul Koudounaris by
Paul Koudounaris, PhD, is a photographer and author of the fantastic The Empire of Death, a book that introduces over seventy charnel houses and ossuaries around the globe. The word “Ossuary” is derived from the latin word os (“bone”) and describes a room where bones are being kept, often arranged in architectural fashion. Many of the readers might be familiar with the most famous ossuaries and charnel houses of the world: The Paris catacombs, the Palermo crypt in Siciliy and the bone church in the Czech Republic, Sedlec Ossuary, but in addition to these Dr. Koudounaris has visited and documented several sites that had little to no exposure at all previously. In this interview, we talk a little of the experience of overtaking such massive work, the place, if any, that the dead hold in various cultures, as well as a few other things — such as folktales of sex ghosts.
Heathen Harvest: Your book “The Empire of Death” contains hundreds of photographs from ossuaries and charnel houses from four continents. Documenting must have been a real ordeal. Illuminate our readers as to what it was that gave you the spark to make this book?
Paul Koudounaris: Ordeal, yes, that is one way to put it. I think I faced pretty much every imaginable problem in trying to get that book photographed, and some that, to this day, still seem unimaginable. At one place, in Austria, I had to go back in the middle of the night and hang upside down from a post and shoot through a hole in the ceiling in order to get the shot I needed — doing it that way was the only way to get the full display and avoid glare, because reflected sunlight was killing every shot from that angle during the day. The police saw me up there and arrested me, thinking I was trying to break in. They took me to the station, but I was able to prove to them who I was and what I was doing; they looked me up online and found out I was legitimate, and in the end they felt so bad about taking me in that they sent a couple officers down to help hold the camera equipment steady. Utterly bizarre night. There was a lot of stuff like that though.
You asked about the inspiration. I have always been interested in macabre visual culture (although I use that word more out of convenience — I don’t really consider the charnel houses macabre per se, that is a very subjective and often problematic term). I also have a PhD in art history, and have researched and studied some related topics. As for the genesis of the book, I got into it soon after I finished grad school. I was kind of wandering around aimlessly in Eastern Europe. Of course, I was already familiar with and had visited some of the more famous charnel houses — the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic (the one they like to call The Bone Church), the Paris Catacombs, the one in Rome… but I had never connected them on any level other than the fact that they are all fantastic places decorated with bone. While I was in Eastern Europe, however, I started discovering more of them — ones that tourists did not go to, that were not known. Some that were not even known to many people in the towns where these places were. And some of these were just as interesting, even as spectacular, as the famous ones. It made me curious as to how many there might have once been, how many still existed, and the relationships between them. I then also became very interested in establishing a historical trajectory once I realized that this at one time was an entire movement.
I never set out to make a book about this topic — I couldn’t have had that intention at the outset because I had no idea of the scope of what I was dealing with. I started out simply taking some photos and putting them up as a travelogue for my friends. One friend said — and this is funny in retrospect — “so are you going to spend the next five years traveling around and photographing these places and then put out a giant book?” And I told him, no way, I have no intention of making that commitment. Well, obviously he knew me better than I knew myself.
HH: Are you interested in using your photographs in other art projects, or is documenting these sites your main interest?
PK: Depends on what you mean by other art projects. I have a good friend, a collage artist named variously Owl Eyes or Astral Eyes — very talented guy, and he has used some of the images in his collages, and also some to use for fabric prints for a fashion line he now has. Also, I gave some to another girl who used them to print skirts with. So…my main personal interest was documenting, but I am very happy to work with other people and turn images over to them for their own purposes. On my end, one thing you have to realize is that the book for me is one of two outlets for the images — the other being photo shows. Most people, of course, will only be familiar with the images from the book or maybe online, but I have done several shows of the photos — the originals are large, I print them up to four feet, and often they have a different tone to them. I tend to print them darker than the book, and also I frequently choose variations on the ones in the book, rather than the same images. I willingly gave the art department free reign to use whichever versions of the images they preferred and to prepare them for printing as they thought best — they are the experts in putting books together, so I made it clear that they should have the final say, to ensure the best possible book. But when it comes to my own tastes, I prefer the images a lot darker, to me they are more expressive that way, and that is how they appear in the photo shows. It worked out on both ends — I can get away with dark images in the photo shows because I am printing in large scale, but you wouldn’t want them heavy and dank on a regular page size, you would lose too much detail.
HH: Do you feel like you’ve learned something from visiting the sites? How did your approach change along the way?
PK: Absolutely, yes and yes. Of course, I learned what was in the book and then some, but I assume here you mean something more profound and on a personal level. And on that count, I really came to feel very strongly this sense of connectivity — between myself, the sites, and the remains around me. What I mean by that is when you are in such places, you are in this liminal space — a timeless space, also. You confront the past in the present, but at the same time, in the presence of so much mortality, reminded of your own future. And it really impressed upon me this feeling of a cycle in which — whomever you are, whenever you lived, and whatever you believe — we are all united.
In terms of my approach, I assume you mean to interacting with the sites. When I first started visiting these places, I was awed by them. That stopped after the first few months, and I became more discriminating over time. What was setting in was a bit of ennui, as visiting and photographing these sites had started to become quotidian for me. Over time, I had to increasingly fight that. If my meaning here is a bit opaque, what I am getting at is that, as time went on, I became really good at photographing these places — I knew how to do it well, I knew how to show up and take a picture that would make the site look great. But that is what I had to fight against, because it was important to not just take fancy photographs, but to maintain a sensitivity to the site. I wanted to try to capture the way I would feel if I had never been to such a site before, and this was the first one I had ever entered. After a few years, that is pretty hard. But with each site I wanted to try cultivate this kind of, I don’t know what to call it, purity or innocence of vision, so I could get photos that did not necessarily make the place look good, but more importantly captured something expressive — something about how the place might make me feel if this were my first contact with a charnel house. That’s hard to do after you have spent a few years visiting similar sites. If it was a site that tourists came to, I would often sit back and not really look at the site itself, but watch the tourists — wait for people who had obviously not been to such a place before and understand their reactions to it. Where does their eye fall? What moves them? At what point when they look around does their jaw drop? Then I would look at those details and try to recover that raw vision in myself before taking photos. If I was in a place that tourists did not come to, which was most common, I would sometimes sit there for hours at a time doing nothing, just waiting to clear my head enough of all the other sites I had visited so I could see just that one. Hopefully this makes sense, because it is hard to explain.
HH: Do you have a favorite among the various charnel houses / ossuaries that you have photographed?
PK: That is an impossible question to answer because I have personal attachments to so many of them, or the towns they are in, or people I met along the way. The book was the final project, and that could be shared, but the journey and the experience was personal, and that could not. Some of those charnel houses, especially the ones that hadn’t been visited, felt like my children on some weird level. So, the only way I can answer that question is to rephrase it as: what do you think the finest macabre site you photographed is? And to that, I would answer unequivocally the Palermo Catacombs. Mummies, bones, historic costumes, incredible folklore — the finest macabre site in the world.
HH: Very often, people are unable to understand the beauty and solemn thought that is characteristic of ossuaries and charnel houses, but rather look at them as something macabre as if these places would be produced by “dark age” mindsets. How have people reacted to your project, and to the finished product (the book)?
PK: I have made a big point of trying to explain to people that these are not oppressive or menacing sites, not sites of morbid damnation, but places that were meant to aid in salvation. Places of beauty. The idea that they might be dark or macabre comes from our own modern perspective. That being said, I have really never had anyone react to the photos as if they were anything but beautiful and glorious. I had an interviewer once who had this preconceived mindset, and some point he apparently wanted to make. And he asked me, “what do you say to people who tell you these photos are disgusting and frightening?” I told him, “well, I don’t tell them anything, because I haven’t had to — no one has ever reacted in that way.” But he kept rephrasing the question, because he was insistent and apparently convinced that people would find the photos offensive. But they don’t, and to me that feels more than anything like the main accomplishment of the project — I wanted to show people beauty in these places, and that is how people have reacted. I have even had people tell me things like the book helped them at a time when a loved one was passing, by allowing them to recontextualize their relationship with death — that is great compliment, the greatest I can get.
The only time I ever had a neighsayer was this one Catholic guy, who wrote me a ridiculous email. He accused me of being “Satanic” because of the photos, and he said that, as a respectful Catholic, he was offended that I was spreading this “Satan stuff.” Well, I wrote the guy back and told him he might want to actually LOOK at the book and READ the text, because these “Satanic” places were constructed by good Catholics such as himself, for the express purpose of helping to save the souls of other good Catholics. Anyway, he wrote back and apologized…
HH: Personally, it seems that with a certain “rejection” of death and the dead in our culture, we have also lost something of ourselves. What is your reflection on this? Was the approach and attitude towards dead ancestors, saints, etc. beneficial to the society at large, or to the individual?
PK: I would agree, but I would also rephrase the statement and consider the dead in our culture to be abject instead of simply rejected — using the term in its theoretical sense to mean that which is cast out, unworthy, a pollutant. Really, the dead are an almost sort of an embarrassment. Dying is kind of a shameful act now. We are so ashamed of the condition of death, that we ask the dead to play a ridiculous role, and we make them up as if we they were still living for the final act, so people can say goodbye to the corpse in the guise of a living state, rather than reaffirm the reality of death. But it is good that you made the distinction in your question about “in our culture”. That distinction is key, since it acknowledges other relationships with the dead have existed in European society in the past, and can still exist in other parts of the world. Death historically has been more of a transition than a boundary. We constructed it as an impassable boundary after the Enlightenment in European and American society, but in cultures which view death as a transition, the dead can still interact with the living and can still have an important social function. In many places, that relationship still exists. For another project, I have recently been in the villages in the Philippines and Indonesia doing photos of burial caves and also of mummies. I visited a family on Sulawesi that keeps in their home the fully dressed mummy of a little girl. Not actually a member of their family by birth, but they found the mummy in a burial cave they were using, and they had a vision that the spirit was unhappy, so they took it home and basically treated it like an adopted daughter. Anyway, I had a local guide who was helping me set up places to photograph and people to interview, and as we were leaving this house, I was talking to the guide about the relationship with death and the relationship of this family with the mummy. The guide told me that for many years, he and his brothers slept in the same bed with the mummy of his grandfather. His family had kept the mummy of the old man, and not only had it around the house, but in the bed where they would sleep with it.
Well, even to me, that story was shocking — not shocking in a way that there is something wrong or heinous, but just shocking on the level that it is so turned around from our cultural relationship with death. Nothing could be more opposed to the way we treat and consider the dead than sleeping in a bed for years with the corpse of your grandfather.
But for his family, it was of course normal, acceptable, and loving. This kind of story certainly makes the point of acceptance of the dead vs. rejection. The final part of your question though asks about the benefits to society of acceptance. That is, of course, harder to answer because it is highly contextual. In response, all I can do is cite a study undertaken by a group of theorists on urban planning, whom recommended that, in civic design, people be reminded of the presence of death — they suggested with things like centrally planned and very visible cemeteries and memorials — because their research led them to conclude that people live happier and better-adjusted lives when confronted by symbols of mortality. Of course, I did not undertake the study, but it certainly jibes with my own intuition, and I believe they are probably correct.
HH: Do you think it possible for the modern age Western society to regain the lost connection between the living and the dead? And should we try it?
PK: I don’t have the temerity or foresight to prognosticate whether we should try, but I think in fact that Western culture is again evolving in its relationship with the dead. It’s always evolving, actually — everything evolves, it is just that sometimes the pace is so slow as to seem completely stagnant. In the case of our relationship with the dead, or at least on the West Coast of the USA where I live, I think it is changing noticeably now. I think this is due to increasing globalization and immigration, and in our case here especially increased influence of Asian cultures, which bring with them a very different metaphysic when it comes to death and mortality. Also, over time, I think the cracks in the Enlightenment have become more visible, and people have become more interested in looking at certain topics, especially concerning the human body, in a holistic rather than discreet way. So…I think our relationship with the dead is evolving, and I think that change is becoming noticeable. Will we regain the “connection”? Well, I think we are beginning to regain a connection which was once very nearly lost, but it will not be that connection, meaning the one we had in the Middle Ages or whenever, because of course that would simply be an intentional archaism. I think we will increasingly cultivate a new connection, however.
HH: Is it possible for our readers to attend your lectures somewhere in the near future?
PK: Well…that’s up to the readers of course. I am doing a talk on the demonic possession of cats in San Francisco in February, although that will probably be history by the time you put this all together. I also have a talk on the book in the LA area coming up (at the Palos Verdes Art Center in March), and will also be doing a Sex Ghost talk at the Bone Room in Berkeley (I believe that is March 14 or thereabouts). The next book will be out in the Fall; it is called Heavenly Bodies and it is a history in photos and text of skeletons that were taken from the Roman Catacombs in the seventeenth century, sent to German-speaking lands, articulated and covered in jewels as fine treasures, and set into churches. I will definitely be doing talks when that book comes out, although we have not scheduled any of them yet.
HH: Looking through your website, this was a quite groovy ad for one of your lectures, so now I’m curious — What are “Sicilian Sex Ghosts”?
PK: Ah yes. Well, that’s my term for them, I can’t say I really know what they are. While I was researching The Empire of Death, I picked up a huge amount of folklore and other stories related to the dead and the sites I photographed. There are tremendous numbers of stories in Palermo about ghosts from the catacombs there sexually molesting people. I came up with a lecture on that topic as an alternative to doing a standard book talk, and that talk has become quite popular. After I had done the lecture a few times, I started to expand it and make some connections, and realized this is an entire topic of huge proportions that no one had ever really covered before — the topic being sex between living people and spectral entities, or ghosts, or whatever you want to call them. Stories like the ones I found in Palermo are found in pretty much all cultures and they date all the way back to the Ancient World: the story of Zeus having sex with Danae as a golden cloud is probably the most historic account of someone having sex with an unknown, undefined spectral entity. These stories are found in Christian history also. The account of St. Teresa of Avila, for instance, which features an orgasmic encounter with a so-called “angel” that shoved a “rod” into her that gave her incredible pleasure is another of the same kind of story. I finally wrote all this up as a magazine article for the Fortean Times. Not sure when it will come out. But what are the Sex Ghosts in Palermo? I certainly can’t say for certain, be they ghosts or anything else, but whatever they are, they are a phenomenon that has a very long history.
HH: How about demon cats?
PK: The demonic cat lecture also grew out of research — in this case for the upcoming book, Heavenly Bodies. One of the skeletons I photographed is connected to the legend of a large white cat, which supposedly would leave the skeleton and patrol and protect the town — the cat was believed to be the spirit of the saint in question. Well, that is not a demonic cat at all, it is in fact an angelic or celestial cat as we might call it. But I started looking into cat lore for cognates to this story. There really weren’t any, but there were a surprising number of stories of cats that had been possessed by demons, so I turned that topic into a lecture also. The most famous demonic cat haunts the US Capitol Building. It has been around since the American Civil War. It’s actually very well-documented — enough so that this particular demonic cat even has its own Wikipedia page. It is commonly called “D.C.,” I guess for both Demonic Cat and District of Columbia. There is not much information on the Wikipedia page, it’s only a stub. The history I pulled together came from a whole variety of obscure sources, but like I said, it is well documented.
HH: Are there any ongoing projects at the moment, or plans for the future?
PK: I have mentioned the upcoming book for the Fall. I also mentioned that I have been shooting in Asia. What I would ideally like to do is put together, after the next book, a global book, and one that is more just a photo book — to work outside a historicizing text and to work on a larger stage, thus allowing all kinds of different connections and comparisons of images to be made. Nothing is signed on this, but I have discussed it with an interested publisher, and I am hoping that we will work out the specifics.
The Empire of Death is available in English, as well as translations in German, French and soon, Japanese. More information and pictures at can be found at the Empire de la Mort website.