Death is the end of life, but in many cultures the instant we take our last breath marks the moment our souls transcend into a new world. In his series Burials, local photographer Sean M. Johnson explores the ceremonial aspects of death through the lens of the LGBTQIA+ community. Burials is a continuation of a previous body of work by the same name, and Johnson’s artistic process has similarly witnessed a rebirth.
“The older series explored rituals of healing and using nature as a way of trying to understand male and masculine identities,” explains Johnson. “I wanted to take it a step further, thinking about the cleansing process, and preparing ourselves for another life or world.”
Each image is a captivating and deeply intimate visualization of his subjects’ idealized worlds. Through collaboration, Johnson’s subjects’ idyllic depictions of death come to life. The complexity of the artist’s process translates within the details of each photograph—delicately placed wildflowers, silky textiles, and innumerable treasure-filled vessels among them.
During initial meetings, Johnson says, he and his (living) collaborators speak at length about the world his subjects envision. “We speak about their identity in the world we live in today, worlds they could see themselves living in with no restrictions, elements they are drawn to, colors, shapes, and [we] even think about the role they would be in this [imagined] world,” he says. “Through this conversation, I note elements we can obtain and use to create [as] close [a] resemblance of this possible Utopia.”
Along with death, burial traditions serve as a shared subject to give viewers insight into the experiences of LGBTQIA+ folks. Johnson hopes the images encourage people to “explore the concept of desire, fantasy, and loss relating to the many challenges the LGBTQIA+ community faces daily.... My work always has an element of fantasy to it—something we can visualize in front of us but, at the same time, cannot have. This idea stems from the concept of my own personal identity; being male, gay, [and] having a fluid gender expression. I’ve always felt I have to put on so many different masks to exist in our world and constantly feel the pressure of society to act a specific way.” The question of what it would be like to exist in another realm is what inspires his daydreams and fantasies about a different world.
Johnson’s relationship with death hasn’t shifted dramatically, and he still doesn’t quite know what the perfect burial would be like. Instead, he says, it’s “totally opened my mind about what it means to be alive and about the importance of our voice in our life.”