Selfies with the Dead

I have been trying to resolve a debate within myself since early 2016 – when I first started handling human skeletal remains as a part of my coursework. I’m passionate about what I do and love being able to inspire that same passion in others but I don’t feel as if I can show people 100% what I do. To date my favourite assessment has involved working on a differential diagnosis of a skeleton – a middle aged man from the middle ages. We examined the lesions of the skeleton and used it to try to reconstruct what ailments and conditions this individual faced during his lifetime. But this was not something that I shared online. In my mind, I had no right to publish photos of this individual.

Sometimes when I’m scrolling through my various social medias I find photos of people looking thoughtfully into the eyes (or eye sockets rather) of a specimen. Or just a shot of skeletal remains with a funny caption. And I don’t want to sound preachy or judgemental about people that do this because I can definitely understand the temptation – what we study and do is amazing. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so too. Not only is it a grey area but there’s a fair few dozens shades of grey within that. When I see a photo of someone excavating and the bones are in situ I don’t have the same reaction that I do when it’s more of a contrived and set up shot some place else. But where do we draw the line between sharing our lives and the exploitation of those that can never give consent to be represented in these images?

I’m of two minds about this issue – selfies with the dead. And I suppose what I mean by selfies with the dead are the very posed photographs, think an Alas, poor Yorick dramatic recreation (not necessarily the candid shots taken in the field) that then get uploaded to ones social media account(s).  On one hand there is a definite ick factor to some of these photos. My knee jerk reaction is to liken them to photos fishermen take with their ‘catch of the day’ – you know the ones, beaming with pride while they hold up their catch, usually highlighting it’s size, rarity or specialness in other ways. It is something to bolster their status. A prize to highlight their adeptness and ability. And that’s what I first think of when I see someone posing with (not working on) skeletal remains. To me there’s a feeling of exploitation that I have trouble coming to terms with – and while I honestly doubt this is the intent of the poster it’s still a valid concern. I don’t know how I would feel if years from now my remains were used to score a flurry of Instagram likes or a standout Facebook profile picture. My skull would probably reanimate and I’d try to take a good chomp out of  them.

A lot of archaeology is story telling. It’s putting the evidence together and making a narrative out of it. But do we need to place ourselves within the same lens? If you want to tell that persons story or even just show ‘Hey, this was SOMEONE’ then why do you need to insert yourself into that? If you must document it then let them be the protagonist in their own story and not be the supporting cast in yours.

On the other hand, and to play Devil’s advocate, there is another way to interpret these photos that is much less nefarious in nature. Researchers and institutions can use them to peak interest in their research projects, which can lead to more funding. Academics and professionals have invested so much time and money to get these opportunities to work with remains that they undoubtedly would take pride in their work and want to share with family and friends what they do. Or like me, they’re passionate about what they do and what better way to spread that enthusiasm then with eye-catching photos? Is it all too different from a hair dresser showing off their work? Or a chef showcasing a tiramisu? I mean, in terms of ‘Here’s what a day in my office looks like’ they’re not too dissimilar but working with human remains always complicates things. And that’s inescapable.

Ultimately, I can somewhat understand why people take these photographs. It can bring a lot of attention to your role – perhaps inspire the next generation of archaeologists. It can bring attention (and possibly funding) to your research area. And it can be a window into your life that friends, family and Internet Strangers might otherwise have no insight on. But, for me, it just doesn’t feel appropriate to pose alongside remains I’ve been given the honour to work with and more so, I just don’t want to. I want to tell their story, not use theirs to benefit my Snapchat story.