Photographer Frieke Janssens takes your last shot before you die

Frieke Janssens, the Bruges-born photographer famous for her hyper-stylised, distinct and sometimes controversial images, is setting out her stall as a portrait photographer with a twist. Her ‘customers’ pay over €1,000 for a final portrait – to be displayed on their tombstones.

Frieke Janssens’ new project, Your Last Shot, is inspired by the same style of 1930s static portraiture that drives much of her work. Born in Bruges, the 32-year-old studied at Sint-Lukas in Brussels and is perhaps best known for her controversial series of hyper-stylised portraits of children smoking. Your Last Shot is her latest enterprise, a collaboration between photographer and subject, with Janssens creating ‘final’ portraits to be displayed on her clients’ tombstones which, rather than being melancholic, are tranquil moments immortalised in porcelain. Citing Sofia Coppola as an influence, Janssen’s style is distinctive in texture and palette. At a funeral she attended during the summer, Janssen got to thinking about the importance of one’s final portrait as “the last image people have of you, the one that they keep”. The influence of August Sander, a German photographer who documented the human experience of the Weimar Republic and who is perhaps the most important portrait artist of the twentieth century, is just as evident here as it is throughout the rest of Janssens’ work. Janssens agrees with the label of ‘surreal’ photographer – her child smokers pictured in distinctive clothing reflective particular lifestyles draw at once upon caricatures while exposing them as such, allowing for duality of perspective.

How’s the project going so far? Many takers?

I’ve only shot five people, but me and my gallery will probably organise shooting days the first Sunday of each month.

How did you meet your clients?

I meet them on the shooting day, but I don’t like the word ‘clients’ – I think ‘portrayed’ is a better word.

Do you think the project is morbid?

I don’t think it’s morbid – my intention is to immortalise people.

You say that you don’t want death to be a taboo, what do you mean by that?

Death is still a taboo in Belgium in my opinion, because people try to stay as far away as possible from it, and many don’t know how to act when somebody dies.

Some people might call it vain to be concerned about a photograph of yourself after you’re dead. Is this photograph for the people themselves or the people they’ve left behind?

I don’t think it’s vain – it’s more about pride. And hey, we all want to look good in a picture, don’t we? The picture is for both the one’s left behind and for the person who’s died; they can enjoy the portrait itself and he or she can be certain about the last image they leave people with.

Would you consider turning it into an exhibition?

I’m thinking about collecting them in a book, so that the people will be made even more immortal.

How limited is the project? How many people will you do before you start doing something else?

It’s more a statement, but I couldn’t make sense of it if I didn’t offer the shoots for real, that’s one reason why it’s limited. Let’s say for the moment it’s limited until I have a full book.