My Photographic Descent to the Underworld— Images by Virginia Conesa
If you’ve been following along, I’ve posted a few Descent Shoots now. Guided Descent Shoots are photoshoots designed to help you psychologically confront the reality of death by reenacting the ancient Sumerian myth, Innana’s Descent to the Underworld.
Here is a (very) simplified version of the myth: Inanna, the goddess of heaven and earth, decides to go visit her sister Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld. To get to her sister, Inanna has to pass through 7 gates. At each gate, she has to remove one piece of her divine regalia (think clothes and jewelry). When she reaches Ereshkigal, Inanna is completely naked, vulnerable, and without any markers of her identity. Here Inanna dies. Don’t worry though! Some trusted minions appeal to the better nature of some other gods, and one of them resurrects Inanna. When Inanna comes back from the underworld it’s as though she’s gained a new aspect of herself. Some psychologists say that this is her embracing her shadow self or the darker aspects of her existence. You can read the entire myth HERE.
During the photoshoot, the model re-enacts this myth by removing one layer of regalia every few minutes. Removing a layer of clothes marks the passage through one of the gates of death and the loss of another aspect of your identity. Once the model has metaphorically gone through all of the gates and reached the belly of the underworld, they will either be nude or wearing a skin-toned slip. This process simulates loss of identity and increased vulnerability. Can someone be more vulnerable than when you are facing death?
I got this idea after I did a death-themed photoshoot with my family friend, who is an amazing artist and a therapist. I was telling her about my early photographic exploration of #thebenefitsofcontemplatingdeath, and she immediately told me about this book she was reading— Descent to the Goddess by Sylvia Brinton Perera. In the book, Perera discusses the value of confronting death and assimilating our shadow selves. I had been looking for a way to deepen the death photoshoots for awhile and this myth seemed like a perfect structure.
Jump to now. I’ve done multiple Descent Shoots and have loved the process. However, I was creating this photoshoot-slash-death-confrontation experience and I had never been the model in the situation. I didn’t know what my subjects were going through. It seemed like a good idea for me to get in front of the camera so I could:
- better understand what the process was like for my models
- have the models perspective inform my future shoots
Luckily for me, my family friend was in town— the one who had suggested Descent to the Goddess to me in the first place. Virginia Conesa-O’Gara is an amazing fine art photographer and she agreed to photograph me as I went through this process.
The location for my descent was immediately obvious. Down the road from my dad’s house in Northern California is our other house (which is actually our family friend’s house). I grew up going over there for oyster barbecues, storytelling events, and song circles. Long before I was around, my dad, his siblings, and my grandparents hung out at this house as well. This house has a path to a beach, and at this beach, a huge gray whale was beached. By the time Virginia and I had migrated here for our annual duo-family get-together, the whale was nothing more than a few remaining ribs, vertebrae, and a giant heap of blubber— all of which were visible only at low tide. Nothing says “underworld” like giant decaying carcasses, etherial tidal water, and slimy, iridescent seaweed— amirite?
The whale remains created a disquieting setting that somehow felt more majestic and grand than if the beach had been clean. The pervasive smell, while disgusting, also helped with the sensation of leaving the normal world behind.
The whole process felt like I was getting to do death rituals for myself, for my own death. I quickly lost any sense of time and was immersed in the present moment. As the shoot progressed I felt I was able to let go of my identity more and more, and felt increasingly as though I was part of the natural environment.
One moment stands out. I was lying against a piece of whale bone and I was shaking my hands above myself. This motion was done for a visual effect, to get motion blur to make it look like parts of my body were insubstantial. However, it felt as though shaking my identity to pieces. Moving my hands was somehow letting me loosen the connection between my identity and my physical body. It was a moment where I didn’t feel like me. I wasn’t wrapped up in the human drama of Hannah. Instead, I felt like I had dissolved back into the rest of everything.
It was amazing for me to get to experience modeling for the Descent Shoot, and getting to feel the benefits of relinquishing self from the process. I’m excited to bring this newfound sense to my future photoshoots.
What has been equally profound is seeing a different artist’s take on the photographs themselves. Virginia’s live experiences and artistic background cause her to represent the uncanniness of the underworld in a strikingly different way than I do. I appreciate this so much because it’s deepening my aesthetic understanding of a mythical confrontation with death. I can bring this additional perspective to upcoming Descent Shoots.
On a practical level, now I know to bring towels when the shoot involves water. Not having extra socks, undies, towels, or a dry change of clothes definitely made for a bone-chilling return to the upper world.
Without further ado, The BCD X Virginia Conesa-O’Gara: