Death and Photography in Life Is Strange

Death and Photography have been connected for years, Life is Strange is no exception to this.

Warning: This will have spoilers for all of Life Is Strange, you have been warned.

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Life Is Strange has an interesting focus on photography that we don’t see very often in games. It does pop up in games like Beyond Good and Evil, but it’s used differently than it’s used in Life Is Strange.  With that focus on photography comes another partner creeping around the corner, and that’s death.

That’s not to say every single piece of media that has photography in it also focuses on death, but it does appear consistently enough throughout media for a very visible pattern to form. A century or so worth of patterns, to the point where people write entire academic essays on the subject, or even books.

With how Life Is Strange is structured, the only way that Max can go back to a set point in time is by focusing on her Polaroid photographs. For most of the pictures, we see things through Max’s eyes, and nearly every character in the game can have their fate changed by Max, including them actually dying because of Max’s actions.

And who is the one character that we have no choice but to take a picture of in the first episode? Well, our blue-haired, foul-mouthed rapscallion of a friend Chloe of course. Chloe, is the first character Max alters the timeline for and the first character whose fate is changed by Max and her camera. The camera was what Max confronts Chloe’s death with, because the camera was why she was in the bathroom in the first place, taking the picture of the blue butterfly. Her camera and her need to take a photograph is what makes her confronts death for the first time in the game. 

In her article for the Village Voice “The Camera Confronts Death”, Judith Goldman states:

Death pervades the landscape of photography, for cameras are weapons that steal life and magical machines that defy death. They can preserve the past, promise the future, and transpose yesterday into tomorrow. Death and photography seem to have a basic relationship; but it is illusory, for the camera does not depict death, it only shows how someone else saw it.

Judith Goldman [1976, p. 129]

Photographs throughout Life Is Strange defy death by capturing a specific moment in time. They don’t depict death itself, but we see how someone else, Max, sees it. The player’s eyes are Max’s eyes, we see her world through her shutter lens, and the player see life as well as death the way she sees it. 

While we, as the player, never directly take a picture of a dead body, our camera does take a picture of those who later end up dead over the course of the story.  Whether it be by their own hands, someone else’s, or By Max’s, that entirely depends on the choices you the player make.

Let’s go over the historical correlation between camera’s and death in order to give this a little more context.

Prior to photographs being prevalent in their correlation with death, we had paintings, or more specifically: mortuary paintings.  These were usually made of people wealthy or powerful enough to have one done. Think the upper class and those who held some form of power over people, like members of the Catholic Church or politicians. Some people have even had their babies or children who didn’t make it to adulthood painted.

 Typically, it will have them laying in a serene pose on their death bed, looking at peace.  It gives people a connection to the death of these figures as it makes it appear as if they were just as dignified in death as they were in life. There was a variant of this when photography became prevalent where they took photographs of the person after they passed, which was popular for a time, but the results were more… unsettling.

It’s okay kiddo, your sister is just sleeping.

Image Credit: Forlorn Path Blogspot

Later on, painters started gradually moving away from this, especially with photography becoming more prevalent with the Camera Obscura which used the daguerreotype. This was the first successful photographic process, used from 1839 to 1860, which I will get into in a moment.

For now though, let’s go over the new type of paintings that became more prevalent in later years.  These are called posthumous mourning paintings, and they far more resembled the sort of photographs we see at funerals now.  A moment of time, frozen for all to see what life was like for this person or even a group of people.  At times they were even shown as a sort of “middle ground” between life and death, which was typically the case with a sub-genre of these paintings of dead children. 

This was first recognized as a trend by Phoebe Lloyd, an art historian who spoke about it in her article “Posthumous Mourning Portraiture.” This article is later cited in Jay Ruby’s Securing the Shadows: Death and Photography in America, in which he states:

“The obscurity of the genre -Lloyd is the first art historian to recognize it- is due to the fact that the deceased children are portrayed alive with “disguised” death symbols that is, a willow tree in the background, or a wilted flower in the child’s hand.” (37)

A willow tree often symbolizes remembrance of a lost loved one, hence the name weeping willow and the dead flower is self-explanatory. An example of this being A Portrait of Camilla, a portrait done after the death of a young girl, which portrays her in a clouded background, holding a watch in her hands.

Image Credit: Here

The watch is stopped at a specific, presumably important time, and the clouds representing her being not only on this world but also on the next. This can be gathered from the painting itself, but to further put this kind of picture into perspective here is a letter from the painter, Shepard Alonzo Mount,  explaining the painting to his son.

As well as the further analysis provided by Deborah Johnson in her book Shepard Alonzo Mount: His Life and Art:

“Alas-How everything fades from us… She was laid out in a beautiful casket and she looked like an angel-Her eyes were bright and heavenly til the last. I painted her with Mr. Searing’s [Camille’s Maternal Grandfather] watch lying in the foreground. The hands pointing to the hour of her birth while she is seen moving up on a light cloud – the image of the lost Camille. She was in the habit of holding her Grandfather’s watch to her ear, and to all others who came around her, she did the same… Camille moves toward a shining star fixed in the heavens, while the pleasures of adoring grandfathers and ticking pocket watches remain behind.

Mount portrays the child at the transitional moment between life and death. The solid parcel of Earth supporting the watch represents the tangibility of earthly existence. In addition to serving a personal reference, the ticking watch is a metaphor for life, the beating heart and the passing of time. Surrounded by clouds which separate the infant from the physical world, Camille ascends to heaven, a pictorial concept derived from Christian iconography.”

Other than this rather obscure trend, for the most part, these portraits tried to show more of the person in life and eventually were phased out in favor of photography.

Photography was still fairly new to the world at this point, which used the process called the daguerreotype, which I mentioned earlier along with the Camera Obscura.

 It was named after Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, and each picture was a unique image made on a mirror-like silver surface, and was kept under glass because it is surprisingly fragile.

This was the earliest example of a working camera a camera which was referenced in the intro sequence by Max, Jefferson and Victoria, giving a brief explanation of the earliest forms of self-portraits as well as the daguerreian process.

Now this brings us back to Life Is Strange where Max is at a stage in her life where her photographs are the only things between life and death, literally as well as metaphorically speaking. Max can use her photographs to go back to a point in time and change the course of reality. Let’s think about someone who Max has the option of taking the picture of, and can also accidentally cause their demise. Victoria Chase can have her picture taken at the beginning of the game if you choose to mock her after she gets paint on her cashmere sweater. According to the Dontnod Wiki,Victoria was one of those who died from the storm if you decided to save Chloe in the end.

There’s Kate, whom Max takes a picture of in the brief replay of Episode 1 in Episode 5, whose death directly involves Max from the scene on the roof in episode two. There’s also the picture of a heavily drugged Kate in the dark room taken by Mr. Jefferson. This can be seen as Kate’s last photograph of her alive if the player doesn’t save her in Episode 2. Or you if you do save her, she could still die because of the storm.

You can take an optional photograph of Alyssa, in episode two and she can be killed during Max’s walk to the Two Whales. On the subject of the The Two Whales: Warren, who you can also take a picture of in Episode 2, can be killed if you let the Two Whales blow up during the storm.

Rachel Amber’s story is not only told by word of mouth, but by photographs taken of her, leading all the way up to her picture taken by Mark Jefferson when she’s lying presumably dead with Nathan, a rather morbid call back to the post-mortem photographs taken with the daguerreian process. It’s the only exception to my earlier statement about how we never see any dead bodies on camera, because it’s never confirmed whether or not Rachel is dead in the photo. As a character, we know nothing about Rachel other than what people tell us and the photographs that were left behind, so all we are given are glimpses in a set point in time through a photographer’s lens.

Now, a lot of these photographs are entirely dependent on player choice and you don’t have to take any of them, technically. But there is one you do have to take to move the story forward and that’s the picture of Chloe in episode one, dancing about. You have to take this picture and you’ll notice that Max has multiple other pictures of Chloe as well, such as the one from their childhood.

Max looks at the world through a photographer’s eyes, effectively capturing each moment with a quick snap of her camera, with the photograph developing instantly. As a character, Max is at a stage of her life, adolescence, where people start to recognize their mortality and begin to look back on things that they were fond of. What better way to do that than through old photographs?  Whether it’s your family pet you’ve had for years passing away, or perhaps an elderly relative, adolescence is where life starts to put in perspective. This is why photography, for many adolescents, is so very important.  Every shot sealing this moment in a special place in time for them to remember in the future, when they no longer have these friends to go back to.Think of something like a selfe or those thousands of pictures you’ll see a teenager post up on Instagram or Facebook. Some say that they’re just doing that because they’re egotistical kids this generation, but when they take a picture, they’re immortalizing a moment with them and their friends.  Similar ideas are covered in the Death and Photography section of Roberta Seelinger-Trites book, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. 

In Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression In Adolescent Literature by Roberta Seelinger-Trites she states:

“Photographs seem to mark a way of slowing down the process for adolescent character in these novels. If they can capture truth on film, creating a series of miniature death images for themselves in transforming the subjects around them, perhaps death will not have as much power over them. If they can make time stand still, perhaps they can, in some sense, defeat death.”

While this wasn’t Max’s original intent with her photos, think of how she first uses her powers, to save Chloe’s life, and how subsequently afterwards she tries so desperately to defy death. She tries to capture precious memories with her friend and avoid the inevitability of her demise. Max tries countless times to use her photographs in addition to her abilities to attempt to defeat death or at least stave off its assault, but all she manages to do is to make its arrival much quicker and much more violent, to say the very least.

Death and photography have such a strong relationship with one another because photographs freeze a moment in time. Forever capturing that one moment, no matter what that moment is, in a small frame. A picture often says more than a thousand words, and the stories that go with them are worth every sentence uttered about them. In Rachel Amber’s case, she will always be remembered across Arcadia Bay by the game’s end as a victim of a serial killer, but also as a bright light that went out far too soon, but she will be remembered in photographs as well as by her peers. The same thing with Chloe if you choose to let her die, only with fewer pictures since Max wasn’t there to frantically try to stop death from claiming her friend’s life.

There’s this thing called embalming fluid that’s used in funeral homes and, if you’ve watched 6 Feet Under, or you’ve read an FAQ about a funeral home, maybe seen a documentary, read a book about it, or maybe you just know about it from another source. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, allow me to explain and connect this to Life Is Strange.

Embalming fluid is a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol and other solvents that is injected into the cadavers, i.e. a corpse, in order to temporarily prevent decomposition and to restore a body for viewing after death.

There’s also the entire in-depth process of embalming a body that includes draining various fluids out, but we won’t get into that too much here, I’ll give a link in the description in case you want to investigate further.

Now, why am I telling you all this?

It’s because in Roberta Trite’s Section on death and photography, she mentions Roland Barathes, A literary theorist and philosopher, with his book, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, which also doubles as an elegy to his mother, in which he discusses how photographers are similar to embalmers, and how with each photograph they experience a sort of “flat death” which they both elaborate on further to describe the embalming process of a camera. 

Roberta Trites cites:

“Barthes calls the photographer as a type of embalmer (14) and a Photograph a “flat death” (19); the separation between life and death. “Is reduced to a single click, the one separating the initial pose to the final click” (92) every photograph of a person captures them in a lifeless position, someone who is either dead or will die eventually; in “Every photograph is a catastrophe.” (Barthes 96)I in this Barthes defines death as an ultimate position of objectivity, for in death the body is completely without agency.” 

Let’s bring this back to Rachel Amber: in death we only see her in photographs, and each photograph is a different moment in time. Not only does this freeze this moment, but with Rachel being dead it successfully embalms her into the person the citizens of Arcadia Bay knew her as, removing really any agency she had in life.  All we know about Rachel is what we were told from other people, she’s never given any agency of her own, especially not in her own death where she isn’t even given a proper burial and her body is essentially played with for the purpose of the art that Nathan and Jefferson were trying to produce.

 She has no agency in her own death or even in the stories told about her after death. She’s essentially just a cadaver in these pictures we see of her, and her story gets told in so many different ways she ends up more as a martyr for our story than as an actual person.

Chloe doesn’t suffer this exact fate, even if you do sacrifice her at the end of the game. It’s because while Rachel just became this symbol of everything that’s right with the world, Chloe is remembered more realistically, and with each photograph that was taken, whether it be by us or by her mother, a clear track of her life is shown through those pictures. She is cadaverized, yes, but it isn’t quite in the way that Rachel Amber is. To us, the players and to Max, we know about

Chloe not just through photographs but, through memories as well. Even if those memories are from a separate timeline we still remember them, and Max doesn’t see Chloe with a halo on her head like Chloe saw Rachel Amber. She saw her through the lens of her camera during her worst and her best moments, acknowledging both.

As a photographer, Max plays the role of an embalmer, freezing a specific moment in time for everyone to remember.  Not only that, but in addition to her powers, her camera plays the role as the one thing that separates people from life and death throughout the story. Every single person or thing you take a picture of can be destroyed by your actions. Life is Strange is a game that allows you to see the world through a photographer’s lens, and through that lens you not only see life and death, but you create it as well.

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Angelina Bonilla
Angelina Bonilla, also known as Red Angel, is a writer with a Bachelor's degree in Humanities, as well as a passion for various other topics such as life sciences and psychology. Video games have been a big part of her life since childhood and she writes about them with the same passion that she writes about books.