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Photography

Remains of the day

Artist-turned-evidentiary photographer plies her trade at the county morgue.

Kelly Root in her Hamtramck home.
Kelly Root at the morgue.
Selections from Kelly Root's senior thesis on embalming. (Note: These photos were not taken at the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office.)
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Published 5/28/2003

Forensic photographer Kelly Root turns the pages of a portfolio of evidence pictures at the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office. She’s surrounded by a group of students from a photography class she teaches at Oakland Community College. They’ve come on a blustery Saturday morning in March for a field trip, to get a glimpse of Root’s work at this, one of the nation’s busiest morgues.

Root hardly pauses as she skims through the images, rattling off details of each case. There are suicides, auto accidents, murders. The photos are startling, showing the carnage of gunshot wounds and the gore of autopsies in cold, unblinking clinical detail. The students look on, mute. But Root is unruffled.

Coming to a set of pictures that show a man lying on the floor and a close-up of a dead rodent, Root glances up. “This is interesting,” she says “This guy, he had a gun and he went to kill a mouse. He hit the mouse with the butt of the gun and it went off and killed him. So there’s the mouse in the corner.”

The students look at each other, apparently unsure of how to respond. Finally, one ventures timidly: “Did he get the mouse?”

Root’s lips compress into a hard line that’s neither a smile nor a grimace. Her response is deadpan. “Yeah,” she says, flipping to the next page, “he killed the mouse and himself at the same time.”

Root, one of her student guests comments, “doesn’t look like someone you’d expect to be working here.” Indeed, with her long blond hair, rosy complexion and delicately defined features, the 25-year-old looks more like a J. Crew model than the pasty, ghoulish mortuary worker of popular imagination.

Root doesn’t have the background you might expect of someone in her line of work either. She never planned to go into a forensic field; rather, she found her way to clinical photography from the distant world of the fine arts.

Growing up in a comfortable home in the Flint suburb of Flushing, this daughter of two GM assembly line workers was always interested in art. In high school she dabbled in painting and drawing before discovering photography. “I fell in love with the process,” she explains. “I loved watching images come up in the developer.” She was fascinated by the camera’s ability to capture and preserve a moment in time. It made her look at the things and people around her, she says, “in a whole new light.”

Photography quickly became her focus. “It was the only thing I was good at,” she says. After graduation, art school was the obvious choice. With her parents’ enthusiastic support she enrolled in the photography program at Detroit’s prestigious College for Creative Studies.

At CCS, Root’s interest in studying her surroundings led her to specialize in social documentary photography, a genre similar to photojournalism with its realism and emphasis on narrative. Working on undergraduate projects such as a study of street scenes on New York’s Lower East Side, or a series of portraits of twentysomething Detroiters, Root developed a rigorous, no-frills photographic style.

She prefers to shoot full-frame, meaning she doesn’t crop or otherwise manipulate her pictures after they’re printed. It’s a technique that emphasizes the photo’s content and demands a keen eye for storytelling and composition. “My photos are not always about the visual,” Root explains. “They’re more about the subject matter. It’s what the photo shows that matters most to me, not necessarily whether it looks like a piece of art.”

For her senior thesis project, Root chose to depict the process of embalming. Originally, she says, she wanted to document the experiences of people who work alongside death on a daily basis — doctors, medics, morticians, cops — and investigate how this contact affects their daily lives. “I got the best feedback from funeral homes, so I narrowed the scope of the project to focus on the process and environment of embalming,” she says.

She readily admits that it was a macabre subject for a photo thesis. But, she says, she wasn’t drawn to the topic out of simple morbid fascination. Instead, she chose to study embalming because it’s a completely ordinary, everyday occurrence that’s viewed as extraordinary. “It’s something that happens every day in every mortuary in Michigan, that will happen to most of us. Yet people don’t ever discuss it,” she explains. Her goal with the thesis, she continues, was to shed light on this otherwise hidden part of everyday life.

Another appeal of the project was the personal challenge it presented. “I got into that [thesis topic] because I wondered how I would react to the subject and how it would show in my photography,” she explains. “I wondered if I would shy away from it, if my photos would be from, like, 20 feet away. It made me go outside of my boundaries, both as a photographer and as a person.”

She quickly learned to adopt the morticians’ straightforward, matter-of-fact manner and attitude as well. “You know, at first it was uncomfortable. They [morticians] would make these morbid jokes and I was, like, ‘Oh, weird.’ But you adjust; when you work with it every day, it becomes part of [the experience],” she explains. “Maybe you don’t become totally comfortable with it, but you learn to accept it to a certain extent.”

The final product reflects this sense of acceptance. Though the project’s 27 images depict the preparation of the body in jarring, unflinching detail, they manage to overcome the initial repugnance of their subject matter and even lend it an unexpected and incongruous beauty.

In one shot, for example, a coil of rubber tubing turns gracefully over a corpse’s chest as a mortician inserts an IV of formaldehyde into a vein; in another, a woman lies on a table, her skin as luminescent as polished alabaster.

In all, it’s only the photos’ stark, somber beauty that makes them viewable. “The art quality of those photos was very important to me,” Root explains. “The composition, the light, the color — I wanted them to be as beautiful as possible in order to engage the viewer.”

Predictably, the thesis elicited much strong reaction. When it was displayed at her graduating class show, Root says, viewers were either powerfully drawn to it or powerfully repelled. “It was interesting to see people’s response. They would walk by, look at it, then look away. They didn’t know what to make of it. Some people would stop and take a closer look; others would keep going and avoid it.”

Comments in Root’s exhibit book illustrate this ambivalence. A note from a photo student praises her work as “intense” while another comment condemns it as “totally unnecessary and disrespectful.” Yet another viewer writes, “I’m getting cremated. Thanks for helping me come to this decision.” Someone else, who identifies himself as a photographer from a family of funeral directors, counters, “I would never disrespect the dead like you have.”

An especially offended viewer writes: “Your [sic] a sick son of a bitch go to hell! I hope I see you so I can kick your ass. Plus I hate you.”

Much to Root’s frustration, the ambivalence toward her work extended to some of the CCS faculty. Her thesis, she says, was placed in an out-of-the-way part of the exhibit area; she thinks the curators did this to avoid controversy.

Root’s friend and former CCS photography classmate Carrie Williams agrees. “Kelly was always one of the best in the photo program,” she says. “Everyone assumed she would be featured in the center gallery. When she wasn’t, we were all surprised. Everyone thought it was politics.”

Root was bemused by the negative response to her thesis — but wasn’t surprised. She admits that she was gratified to see viewers’ strong reactions, but insists that her aim wasn’t simply to be shocking. “Maybe it has shock value,” she says, “but there’s educational value too.”

She argues that objections stem mostly from people’s discomfort and unwillingness to talk — or even think — about death. Projects such as her thesis, she believes, are beneficial in that they compel viewers to ponder the frightening but inescapable fact of their own mortality. She contends that her photos do not compromise the dignity of her subjects. Rather, they show the truth of what happens to the body after death — a truth that may be disturbing, but that is nonetheless inevitable. “People don’t think about what happens to their loved ones after they die. They just blindly hand them over to the mortician. I wanted to show them what really goes on.”

 

While researching her thesis, Root became acquainted with Joseph Sopkowicz, the head forensic photographer at the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office. After her 2000 graduation, Root became a photography intern at the Warren Avenue office. At the end of her internship she began her present job as assistant forensic photographer. She is responsible for photographing cadavers that come through the office on weekends, holidays and when the chief photographer is away.

The duties of the forensic photographer go far beyond just snapping an identifying photo of the deceased. Standing in the viewing gallery that looks through a plate-glass window into the main exam room, Root explains to her students that the photographers also must physically prepare the bodies for photography. Preparation can include cleaning wounds to make them more visible to the camera and “breaking rigor” — forcing down limbs that have contracted in rigor mortis.

While preparing subjects for photography, the photographers sometimes discover wounds missed in the initial examination; Root gives the example of a recent case where she came across a gunshot wound in a subject’s ear that had been obscured by blood and passed over by the examining pathologist.

In other cases, such as with self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head, the photographers may even have to reconstruct the remains of a corpse’s face to make an ID picture possible.

As Root details her duties, autopsy technicians wheel the day’s cases into main exam area. It’s a long, high-ceilinged room divided into several workspaces, each with a stainless steel exam table and sink.

Every surface shines pristine and antiseptic in the diffuse sunlight that comes through the skylight overhead. On a wall an autopsy technician has posted pictures of the cartoon characters Lilo and Stitch; in one of the workstations a small radio murmurs the sedate sounds of a smooth jazz station.

It’s a “slow day,” with only seven bodies to be examined. Root says she has worked days when the room was crowded with as many as 20. Among the cases on this Saturday morning are two suspected suicides, a teenager who was shot to death at a house party, and the skeletal remains of a child found in a vacant lot. The latter, arrayed on an exam table with the sheet and clothing with which the body was found, seem to pique the interest of the autopsy technicians. One picks up the skull with a gloved hand, examines what appears to be a fracture, and shakes her head.

“If it gets to be too much for you and you want to leave, there’s an exit around the corner,” Root says, indicating a side door.

Then she leaves her students in the gallery to join the team of autopsy technicians and pathologists, headed by chief medical examiner Dr. Sawait Kanluen. The team members, all clad in plastic aprons and gloves, move from table to table as Kanluen examines the corpses. Root listens attentively and jots down notes on a clipboard as the pathologist points out injuries and identifying features to be documented.

Minutes later, Root wheels the first case, one of the suspected suicides, into the photo room. It’s a cramped space that smells strongly of disinfectant. In a sink a faucet pours into an overflowing container of instruments; on an adjacent counter sits a large handheld digital camera and an array of forceps, rulers and other tools laid out on a tray.

Root’s manner is brisk and precise as she prepares to take the photos. She instructs her assistant, photo intern Nasreen Aziz, in a clipped, businesslike voice. She takes the identifying frontal shots, then she and Aziz flip the body to get a posterior view. They handle the corpse smoothly, confidently; neither seems to shrink from touching it. One of the students comments that it’s strange to see a human body move so stiffly; Root agrees, saying that the rigidity is a result of rigor mortis. As she shoots, she explains the technical details of the process to the students — the camera settings, how she frames the shots to best show injuries or important details, how she methodically changes her double set of gloves and disinfects the instruments and camera between each case.

She points to the rows of lights in the ceiling and smiles wryly. “Those used to be incandescent lights. I’m glad they changed them. It must’ve gotten really hot in here under all those.”

One of the students asks if Root ever feels uncomfortable in such a small room with the bodies. She laughs lightly. “Well,” she says, “when I first started, I wasn’t too thrilled about being in here alone with a case with the door shut. But I guess it doesn’t bother me now.”

With the shots finished, Root and Aziz peel off their gloves and aprons. Root puts the instruments in the sink to be disinfected, notes the shots on her clipboard, and returns the body to the main room.

In all, the shoot has taken only a few minutes. Root says that she tries to work as speedily as possible. “I just want things to move quickly and smoothly. I don’t want to hold anyone else up.” The photos, she says, must be completed before the autopsy is performed because they may be shown to the next of kin or used in court. “You really can’t do them after the autopsy. No one wants to see a photo of a person who’s been eviscerated.”

When it’s time to photograph the murdered teen, Root warns the students that the youth suffered a gunshot wound to the head. “If you don’t think you want to see that, you can go back to the photo office and wait for us,” she says. Several of the students nod uneasily and follow Aziz out of the exam room.

Root consults with one of the assistant medical examiners. He points out the multiple gunshot wounds to the youth’s head and chest. Apparently, the boy was shot to death some hours earlier after an argument over a rap song. The body, the doctor notes, is still slightly warm to the touch. Root shakes her head and comments on how young the boy looks. Then, following the doctor’s instructions, she slips a plastic block under the head, shaves the scalp at the site of the bullet’s entrance and takes a series of close-up shots.

One of the guests asks Root if she reacts differently to photographing victims of homicide, as opposed to natural deaths or suicides. Root ponders the question for a moment, then replies, “I guess I’m pretty detached from it. Sometimes I think about it, but for the most part I focus on my job. I didn’t see them suffer or die … it’s after the fact. I just focus on taking the picture the best way I can.”

Few cases shock her, Root continues. One of the few situations with the power to shake her detachment is when she sees a child who has died violently. “Sometimes when there’s a child, when I’m closing their eyes, I’ll say a little prayer, I’ll hope they didn’t suffer so much,” she says. “I know that they’re at peace now. So, yeah, I do think about it, but I realize that there’s nothing that can be done now. And my job is to make sure that there’s evidence to help catch and bring to justice whoever’s responsible for their death.”

The knowledge that her photography plays a part in the meting out of justice, Root explains later, is one of the most gratifying aspects of her job. She’s dismayed to hear that forensic photos don’t always make it into court. “They don’t like to show the pictures to juries,” she says. “They think they’re too much to handle.”

Nevertheless, Root believes that it’s important for people to see such images — for the same reason that it’s important for them to see depictions of procedures such as embalming. To her, it’s all part of being fully aware. Most people, she says, don’t realize how tenuous our grip on life really is, or how quickly and easily that grip can come undone.

“People die every day,” she says. “And sometimes they die so pointlessly, so stupidly.”

It is people’s inability to fathom their own mortality, and the mortality of others, she suggests, that too often leads to such senseless deaths.

She points to the example of the slain teen. “I just don’t understand it. People don’t think death can happen to them. They don’t understand the consequences of their actions. I mean, to shoot someone? Over a rap song?” She is incredulous. “Is it that they don’t understand the consequences of shooting someone, or that they just don’t [care]? Or are their lives worth so little to them?” She shakes her head.

“That’s what I want to show people,” she continues. “I want to show them consequences.”

 

Root’s small Hamtramck flat is a bright, cozy place: Old family portraits and photos from former classmates adorn the living room walls; a wall alcove houses a statue of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and re-creation; a jackalope head hangs near a window. Root sits cross-legged on a small armchair in front of a bookshelf stacked with photography monographs, novels and medical textbooks. She’s a gracious hostess, offering coffee and slices of poppy seed roll from a nearby Polish bakery. It’s a far cry from her brusque efficiency at work.

Still, even relaxed at home, Root is self-possessed and frank discussing herself and her work.

She admits that she has always had a rather dark worldview. Her experience at the morgue, she says, has only supported this. Seeing the terrible things that people do to each other has given her an insider’s glimpse of what “really” goes on in the world — “or at least in Wayne County,” she adds. It has also made her think that the world is a much weirder, scarier place than the average person realizes.

She emphasizes that it hasn’t made her trust people less. But it has made her more aware of her surroundings. She reads more into people’s actions and tries harder to divine their motives and intentions.

She has also become more conscious of her dealings with the opposite sex. The men that come through the morgue, she says, typically die of “straightforward” causes — accident, suicide, murder. They’re also more likely to be killed by strangers. Women, on the other hand, almost invariably suffer sexual violence, often at the hands of loved ones or acquaintances.

Predictably, she’s become more conscious of her own mortality. But, on the whole, she isn’t worried about finding herself on a table at the medical examiner’s office. “I don’t use drugs or sell drugs, I’m not in an abusive relationship, I don’t drive drunk or speed on icy roads,” she says, pointing out that, compared to most of the victims of untimely death that she sees in the morgue, she lives a low-risk lifestyle.

Root acknowledges that she is, to a certain extent, fascinated with the macabre. But it’s a normal fascination, she believes. “Everybody has that curiosity — they want to know how other people live, and how people die. They want to know about their compulsive little habits, eating batteries and metal, people who eat their hair. I just get to see the most negative aspects of that.”

Moreover, she emphasizes, “It makes me grateful for my life, my family. Like, my family’s not perfect — but it could be worse. Much worse.”

She doesn’t think that her experience at the morgue has changed her much. Her younger brother, David, agrees. He hasn’t noticed any great difference in his sister since she began working as a forensic photographer, he says by phone from Mt. Pleasant, where he’s a senior at Central Michigan University. The only noticeable change, he says, is that she’s grown more self-assured and confident than ever.

So confident, in fact, that she sometimes intimidates his friends on first introduction. “She’s older, attractive, smart,” he says. “I’ve had people say ‘Your sister scares me — I don’t know what to do around her. She’s too smart.’”

But, he says, his friends quickly realize that she is as personable and outgoing as she is intelligent.

Root knows that what she does isn’t for everyone — and she admits that on some days it can be too much for her. “Sometimes it doesn’t sit well. Sometimes you’ll get a really strong whiff of something you don’t want to smell. … It’s not the most pleasant thing to be around. I don’t know if I’d want to do it every day. Some days, when I have to photograph, like, eight cases, I’m like, ‘Man, I’m done.’”

But on the whole, she’s learned to accept most aspects of the job — even to see the work as normal. “Not that people are expendable, but I realize that people die every day. I’m going to die, you’re going to die. It’s part of living,” she says. “I think you can grow accustomed to anything.”

One of her coping mechanisms seems to be a healthy sense of humor. Root clearly doesn’t take herself too seriously. Her cell phone ringer, for instance, plays the theme from Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” — the organ riff that has become a scary-movie stereotype. And she makes no secret of her love of kitschy horror flicks, especially cornball thrillers such as Reanimator and Evil Dead.

She has no taste for more realistic depictions of gore in movies like The Silence of the Lambs, however. Those movies “don’t appeal to me,” she says. “I guess I don’t appreciate the novelty or shock the way someone else would. To me it’s just disturbing.”

She adds that the currently stylish, hyperrealistic carnage in films like Saving Private Ryan and on TV shows like “CSI” and “NYPD Blue” only adds to the public’s skewed view of death. “The concepts that they use in those shows are mostly accurate,” she explains, “but they’re still glamorized. They’re presented in this ‘gritty, realistic’ way, so people think they’re getting this glimpse of what really happens. But it’s still fake.”

 

Representing the truth has become more important than ever to Root. The rigorous accuracy demanded by her forensic work, she says, has increased her concern for clarity, detail and realism. At the morgue, she says, “there’s no room for my personal take on [the subjects].” Her pictures are strictly defined by their status as documents; ideally, the work of every clinical photographer should be identical.

Nevertheless, she often finds herself applying the rules of composition she learned in art school to her clinical work. Rather than simply taking a functional but uncomposed snapshot, she says, “I try to make sure everything is clean and neat and lined up and flawless. Because you want to concentrate on the characteristics of the [subject’s] injury and not how the photograph was taken.”

Root says she was “burnt out” on art photography after graduating from CCS. Dissatisfied with and uninspired by the Detroit art scene, she focused all her energies on her work at the Medical Examiner’s Office. It’s only recently that she’s begun to shoot for herself again.

At the same time that her fine arts training subtly influences her forensic work, her morgue experience has unsubtly influenced her technique and interests in art photography.

Root believes there’s a natural link between her art and forensic photography. Her aim in both of the two seemingly distant fields is the same: to tell a strong story in as direct a fashion as possible, with great attention to accuracy and detail.

“I guess I’ve got kind of an anal streak,” she says, then corrects herself. “No, wait. I shouldn’t say ‘anal.’ I should say ‘precise.’ It’s like ‘I’m a photography machine.’”

One current project depicts scenes, objects and textures from her past; its aim, she says, is to document these easily overlooked yet evocative aspects of her childhood. It includes environmental portraits of her family’s Flushing home, as well as meticulous studies of surfaces that are touchstones of her childhood — the wallpaper and carpet in her old bedroom, the polished grain of an old wooden door.

It’s all part of a desire to put herself into her pictures. “I’ve been taking pictures of other people for so long. Now I want to become part of the process, so I’m not just photographing other people, I’m photographing myself and putting myself in the same context.”

Root’s most ambitious current project is the Williams Root Gallery, the showcase that she and Carrie Williams will soon open in Hamtramck. Though both women are photographers, the gallery will be open to all media, not just photography. Its first show, planned to be a benefit for the Hamtramck police and fire departments, is tentatively scheduled for the end of the summer.

Williams, who lives downstairs from Root, is excited by the prospect of collaborating with her old friend and former classmate. Though the two have very different styles — Williams creates photo collages that depict fantastic or mythical beings and events and are a universe removed from Root’s gritty hyperrealism — Williams says that they have similar aesthetic senses and have long worked together. “Kelly is the first person I ask for advice. We always critique each other’s stuff — I know where she’s coming from,” she says.

Root is unsure where her work or her gallery will fit into the local photography scene. Speaking about the state of the arts in Detroit, she’s characteristically blunt. In Detroit, she says, too much attention is paid to “rock ’n’ roll and seedy underworld scenes,” while there is a dearth of high-concept, risky, well-crafted art. She and Williams hope to fill this void with their gallery.

“Hamtramck’s great,” Root says. “There’s really no pretension there. I come from a family of blue-collar workers; I feel at home here. I wouldn’t feel comfortable opening a gallery anywhere else.”

She takes a long view of the pertinence of her photography. “People always say, ‘Oh, it’s all been photographed before.’ But not in your time period. One thing about my pictures, they might not be so interesting now, but in 20 years they may be worth a lot more.” Besides, she adds, she’s in no rush: “Most photographers’ work isn’t even appreciated until after they’re dead.”

Ian M. LeBlanc is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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