In many of our contemporary cultures, the realities of death feel unapproachable. Traditional grieving methods are routinely relegated to the margins, replaced by the medical promise of comforting objectivity. But for those of us confronted by the ebb and flow of complex emotions in the wake of death, the assurance of objectivity falls short. For Ioanna Sakellaraki, this evolving emotional storm, experienced head-on in the wake of her father’s death, is what prompted her to pursue a project on bereavement, finding ways to document the organic chaos that she describes as “the passageway into a liminal space of absence and presence.”

Tartarus (deep abyss) © Ioanna Sakellaraki

When Sakellaraki moved away from her home in Greece over a decade ago, she never anticipated the circumstances that ultimately led her back to that formative place. “When I returned to Greece after my father’s death, I slowly began unravelling a personal narrative of loss, interweaving the fabrications of grief in my family and culture, looking into how my work might untangle the endless remaking that surviving loss entails.”

When a community experiences death, it’s difficult to prepare for the multiple layers of grief that emerge, both private and collective processing that each require attuned navigation. Across time, in a number of communities around the world, processing grief was left to experts, often referred to as moirologists—professional mourners—who performed ancestral fate songs at a service. Growing up, Sakellaraki was aware of these traditions, but felt detached and afraid of them in her contemporary context.

Moirologia (fate songs) © Ioanna Sakellaraki

When her father passed, she developed a fear of the ritual happening at his funeral. “During that time, I had been reading different fragments of fate songs, researching how mortuary rituals have long been understood by anthropologists as a way for humans to adapt to death,” she explains. “I believe it was that discomfort, paired with pain and curiosity—and perhaps also anger—that pushed me to learn more about the tradition while going through my own grieving process.”

The photographer travelled to a village called Skourati in the Mani Peninsula, a region known for employing a number of the remaining moirologists, so that she could attend a proper performance, often improvised over a coffin. “Considered an art, moirologia can be traced to the choirs of Greek tragedies, and over centuries it became a profession exclusive to women,” Sakellaraki explains. As someone interested in the gradual disappearance of the tradition, the photographer began questioning how mourning might become a cultural experience of loss today. “At the crossroads of performance and staged emotion, I look at how the work of mourning contextualizes modern regimes of looking, reading and feeling,” she says. It’s a somewhat enduring subject; that inevitable experience we must all face—death.

Polyhymnia (sacred hymn) © Ioanna Sakellaraki

Sakellaraki focused on processing her complex, timeless emotions through the lens of her camera. The photographic image, as a marker of a moment in time, is an apt reflection of how we experience loss. “I’m interested in how both death and photography arrest time by disordering memory,” she reflects. “In their own unique ways, the images trigger memory and memory loss, which are interconnected as we venture through grief. I approach death as an open-ended cultural enigma, with both subjective and objective interpretations, using my images as passages between sheltering something from death and establishing its relationship with freedom. Photography is my way of attempting to find responses, locating the place where emotions can flow and where I can articulate my imagination. In that sense, my work becomes a resting place—a space where time seeks freedom.”

Blood of Adonis (death and rebirth) © Ioanna Sakellaraki

The resulting images, brought together under the title The Truth is in the Soil, feel like documents and records from another dimension, and in so many ways, they are. Sakellaraki’s photographs represent that liminal space she fixates on, between the land of the living and whispered memory. Allusions to ritual and stories, like Persphone’s relationship to the pomegranate and the underworld, are woven throughout the collection of works.

While experimenting with images in post-production, Sakellaraki started prioritizing the moirologists’ mysterious silhouettes, rather than directly showing their faces, bringing them into conversation with the Mani landscape. She explains, “I moved from the original figures to their concealed forms, where the distinction between the real and the imaginary led to a tangible experience of separation.” Through her images, this separation actually became an encounter. “The human figures of the female mourner turned into the landscapes themselves as I cut, drew together, marked, and disassembled the original figures.”

Achlys (mist of death) © Ioanna Sakellaraki

While Sakellaraki’s project documents a tradition specific to her homeland, her messaging is relevant to all of us. “Society’s beliefs surrounding grief are always evolving, as death often brings with it a profound rupture in beliefs, roles, and identity,” she explains. Since initiating the project four years ago, the photographer continues to wade through its substance. As much as it has affected her own understanding of grief and its relationship to photography, she continues to show her work with the hope it touches others in some way. “In the wake of witnessing loss globally within our cultures and civilizations, all I can hope for is that this work provides some comfort, prompting someone to stop, remember, contemplate, and rethink mortality through this imagined path of departure onto a new landscape—a space of fantasy and loss, between worlds.”

Editor’s note:
The Truth is in the Soil was a Juror’s Pick in the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2021. Check out the rest of our selection for more inspiring work!