About love and death

A short description of the recent photography exhibitions at the C/O in Berlin titled “Nobuyoshi Araki: Impossible Love – Vintage Photographs” and “The last image: Photography and Death” leads us to the questions about love and death. As the exhibitions deal with these two subjects, their definitions and connections are of particular interest for us and most of all the question if love might be caused by death.


08.12.18 to 03.03.19







At C/O Berlin two exhibitions were opened on 8th of December: “Nobuyoshi Araki: Impossible Love – Vintage Photographs” and “The last image: Photography and Death”. We visited “Impossible Love” first and strongly recommend to do it in this sequence. “The last image” is highly disturbing and even morbid in the end. This is intentional, but requires mental strength.

The topics of the exhibitions seem to contradict each other, as love and death are commonly regarded as opposites. However, part of the “Impossible Love” features personal photos of Araki’s passed wife. Photos, which picture their complete life together from meeting, through honeymoon, travel, sickness and to her death.

Winter Journey, 1989-2005, by Nobuyoshi Araki.

Araki’s exhibition gives an impression of a photography fool, who just snaps images of anything as there are pictures of sky, flowers, dolls, humans, etc. But this impression is overshadowed by the presence of a genius and a feeling of a gamble with taboos. Lot of images picture naked bodies just being naked or caught in sexual act, some photos are suggestive, even if it is an image of a fruit or a fully clothed man, and some again show what might be hidden under an everyday appearance of any human being.

In my mind the connection from Araki’s exhibition extended from his wife to the photos in “The last image” – photos at the start of the exposition, which show passed away relatives and pieces from the burial rituals, which express love for the dead. One of the projects, which was an attempt of W. Schels to deal with the death of his mother, features photos of persons before and after death. Also throughout this exhibition the feeling of a taboo being challenged is strongly prevalent, as the exposition features over 400 photos. Some of the works from various artists and photographers put the death into the spot light. Other professionals dealing with death let it step aside and look almost trivial. Walking deeper into the exhibition a sense of revulsion might come up, as lot of works feature events which are usually hidden or pixellated. Some pieces are impressive, however, in our case the fascination and challenge were replaced by shock and dullness, which made it hard to admire new pieces and artists. It seemed that several displays were misplaced or unnecessary – one example are the not shown ph of the death of the RAF terrorists, another one is death of Kennedy.


Love and death are concepts, which accompany humanity through the history. Death is certainly the older idea, but love might be a distinguishing concept for the humanity. Both are common for human lives but are sophisticated and have a lot of definitions or no common definition at all at least, if generic human experience is considered.

The struggle to understand love and it’s definition is continuing for some time. It is not equal sex. It is not a pure evolutionary concept as reproduction is possible without love and even without sex. To add more confusion different concepts of love exist: parental love, love of the couple or love for yourself. The least disputed kind of love is the parental love, as it to some extent natural to care for offspring in order to prolong the existence the species. Research suggests that the mother instinct to protect and care for their children comes from the hormone oxytocin, which triggers dopamine reward connected to the younglings and leads to something similar to an addiction (Journal of Neuroendocrynology, 2001).

An analog principle turns promiscuous sex to a monogamy in the animal kingdom by placing additional receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin in the reward region, which is an extension of maternal love to a pair bond (Journal of Neuroscience, 2009). Same hormones play a significant role in human relationships. Oxytocin is released during sexual arousal and increases trust at least. Therefore, chemically love relies on similar methods, independent of the love category (Science, 2008; Nature, 2005).

Nevertheless, human love is considered more than pure chemistry. Recent neuroscientific findings suggest that the feeling of love triggers intensive neurological response in human brain. The findings of these studies are somewhat diminished by the fact that the scientists have to make some crucial assumptions before conducting an experiment (Sociological Theory, 2018). So human love seems to be more than just chemistry, biology, evolution or reproduction, even though all of these components play a role. Could it be that the crucial component is the death?

In Merriam-Webster dictionary death is defined as “a permanent cessation of all vital functions : the end of life.” This definition takes it’s origin as opposite of life and is common to human understanding. This narrow sense does not fulfil all the needs of humankind, especially the ones, which have arisen as medical life support was invented. Here a debate between the supporters of the definition of the cessation of all vital functions and the advocates of the death as the irreversible loss of the conscious or personality inflamed (Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 1999).

Death mask, C/O Berlin
Processed with VSCO with a5 preset
“Unfinished Father” by Erik Kessels, C/O Berlin

Beyond the biological fact of the end of life much more complicated psychological influences of the death are assumed. In fact S. Freud already used the principles of “Eros” (love) and “Thanatos” (death), which stood for the sexual drive and ego. Here, Eros is responsible for procreation, social cooperation and survival as Thanatos stands for destructive tendencies, risky behaviour and resulting aggression. In modern psychology these principles are not taken literally, but the contribution is respected. I mention it here especially as it is one of first works, which connects the love and the death in human behaviour rigorously (The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1955).

The mutual influence of love and death is strong in the relationships, where one of the partners died. In case of a traumatic event destructive tendencies could settle in (grief, drinking habit and other propensities up to suicide). In such constellation death triggers destructive tendencies through love (American Psychologist, 1992). This interconnection of death and love peaks in a conclusion that the death might be a psychological cause for love.

A study suggests that sex reminds humans or at least highly neurotic persons of our animal nature and ultimately of the death. However, if the sex was supposedly meaningful, which includes romantic love, the trend of death related thoughts decreases (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999). A similar finding suggests that lonely people are more often confronted with the thought of human perishability and people in love spend less time confronting these thoughts. Supposedly, also the thoughts of death increase after an end of a relationship (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2003). The human species realized at some points its individual mortality and the connections made here might point to a combined conclusion that love, biological and chemical in its origin, was a psychological trick used by human beings in order to decrease the pressure of the mortality thoughts by building a biologically supported social linkage called love.


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