Photographing death with Amber Golembiewski

We met Amber in a cozy brewery in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Before the interview, we took a few minutes to chat. Amber has a  warm smile, cute glasses, and a sharp sense of humor. You would not guess that she encounters violent death daily. Amber is a Forensic Photography Intern, working in morgue, a large metropolitan area. She started working in forensic photography after completing her Master’s in Forensic Anthropology. 

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P: Tell me about a typical day at your job?

G: Right now, I’m learning to upload scene photos. The investigators take scene photos, we upload them onto their computer systems so, it’s a lot of technical stuff. Each case has its own  file and number. Around 8:30 the doctors and techs do an inspection of all the  people who have come in from the night before or early that morning. Then they go over who going to get an autopsy or if it’s just an inspection and what cases need histology or toxic done. During and after inspection the doctors tell us what they want us to photograph. Mainly we photograph  any cases that are suicides, homicides, car accidents, anyone under the age of 18 , and  pregnant women too. We’re focusing on  any pathology, wounds, and anything of  interest. After the inspection is done, we just take the people into the photography room one by one and photograph them. For car accidents, we look for patterns. For suicides, obviously if it’s a gunshot we take pictures of the entrance and exit if there is one. If it’s a hanging, we take pictures of three or four different views of the neck to see where the furrow is as well as the objects used. We get a lot of homicides, lots of gun violence unfortunately. Afterwards, we upload the photographs into their system  and do a little bit of editing, and that’s about it for my job..

P: Do you guys do pictures of the scene as well?

G: No. From my understanding, we just do it at the ME’s office  and our photographs are used by the doctors.. The police departments have their own crime scene photographers that they use for their own purposes. The investigators take the scene photos we use. For example,  car accidents that happen in the middle of the night, the investigators  on the scene take photographs. During the morning inspections, they read some of  the police reports, and you can see this and this and  this makes sense if you have already viewed the scene photos. But sometimes things don’t make sense, and you know of course you can’t speculate. So the doctors see what they can determine , and that’s it. We take photographs of them and that’s it. We don’t know what happens to them afterwards. We don’t know what is put in the autopsy report,  the cause of death, the manner of death, what not.

We’ll get people who are referred to as ‘as is’ photos. So if someone is say bound, gagged, or stuffed into  a bag, Techs or one of the doctors  will take stuff off, just like an archaeologist, take layers off and then take photographs of each layer because you’re destroying the scene at that point. If they’re unidentified, police will come in or a investigator  will come in and get  the fingerprints. I think they also do nail clippings, I haven’t done that yet.

P: They take the nail clippings?

G: Yeah, maybe if there was a struggle or a suspected homicide . So if there’s any DNA.

When doing photographs, I was trained to clean any blood up. If there is blood present, people think there are injuries at that location. You have to clean them up and make sure there’s no blood so what you’re really focusing in on is the wound., You want to make sure there is not anything around it so people’s eyes are drawn to it. You know if someone is shot in the head, a lot of times we have to shave around it. So that’s really interesting, trying to shave it. It’s a skill. You have to shave it because  it looks better. You can see muzzle imprint or  gunpowder stippling better, so it’s interesting. Sometimes I wonder, how did I get here? Why am I shaving this person’s head or this person’s leg?

P: So how did you get here?

G:  I got my undergraduate degree at University of Michigan-Dearborn. One of the professors there got her PhD at the  University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She had suggested taking some short courses down there at the Forensic Anthropology Facility, most people known it as the Body Farm. So I went and did that, and I actually really enjoyed it. You know the human body is like its own universe. There are so many things to it, it’s just amazing. Even if you’re dead, it’s like its own little ecosystem. So I really enjoyed that, and I took a couple more short courses at Mercyhurst. There was an advanced lab class, a death scene archaeology class, a taphonomy class  and afterwards I really just focused on forensic anthropology. From there I was helping that same professor with forensic anthropology at the medical examiner’s office . I could talk about that.

So I assist in processing cases we would receive . The cases we get are either mostly  mummified, or skeletonized. When you’re processing a mummified case, the skin is leather like , it’s very hard to cut through. You have to cut out the bones and macerate  them in a large heated pot of water and certain cleaning products. The bones process for an hour or so, but do not boil. If a case needs DNA we don’t  macerate  certain  bones that we send off for DNA testing. We clean those bones lightly by hand with water. We let the bones macerate for a little bit depending on how dirty they are. We clean them under water and peel any extra flesh off and let them dry. Next we take measurements to create a biological profile, which includes age estimation, sex estimation, stature and ancestry estimation. Also noted are any signs of trauma, pathology, or other possible distinguishing features such as orthopedic implants. We take photographs, and my professor would do the analysis to create a biological profile. Lately, we’ve been getting homeless people and ,unfortunately, a lot of people who have OD’ed as well because of the drug epidemic. he other day when I was in the ME’s office out of 7 people 4 of them were ODs.

P: So you work in a major metropolitan medical examiners office??

G:. Yes, It’s a lot of work. I can see being a forensic pathologist is a lot of work. You’re working with a lot of human fluids, possible diseases that you can catch. That in itself is terrifying. Even like me, it’s like “oooh did I just touch that gooey spot”, I don’t know what this person has. So you know you really want to cover up. And even cleaning up the blood is still iffy to me.

The lady I work under, she’s amazing at her job. She takes one look at things and (sound imitating camera flickering), she takes these photos. I take one look at her photos and they’re beautiful. I take ten of the same photo and they’re awful, awful. She’s been doing the job for about 12… 12 -15 years. So, she’s a professional. So you’re learning what you’re taking a photograph of and shot composition is really important as well as lighting. Because you want someone to look back at these photos and see features of the wounds and the location of the wound. You want to be able to say  okay this is on their arm, this is a bullet exit, or these are scratches. We also photography any evidence of previous suicide attempts which we do find. And sometimes even when we are taking a photograph or preparing the bodies, we’ll find something of importance and show the doctor then take a photograph.

So back to how I got here, while helping with forensic anthropology cases, I would see the photographer I’m currently interning under and she offered me an internship. And I’ve been doing that since… two months ago. It’s been two months now.

B: So awesome!

G: Yeah, it’s, yeah. I never thought I would end up here, but I guess I am here now. I like it but it’s very difficult because I like talking about death, and everything that surrounds death. But I’ve come to find out that a lot of people don’t want to talk about death or are not comfortable about death. Which is weird because you know I think back in the day before the funeral industry happened and people were just like “oh well you know dad died we’re just going to put him up in the parlor, wash his body, have people come over”. And even photography in terms of death has really intertwined. Death scene photography, post mortem photography. It’s interesting to see how it’s evolved. Even with the internet, everybody has a phone now so death isn’t private anymore which to some extent I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that. Just because I feel like death should be a private thing.

Now, unfortunately, there will be car accidents and you’ll see people pulled over with their phone like “Ooooo” taking a photo.

P: Seriously?

G: It’s really screwed up. You got a story?

B: I had a friend that took a selfie with the person in the casket and I thought are you fucking serious?

G: Especially since everybody has a cellphone now. Ah, “this is me and grandma”. Because technically people were taking postmortem photos, right?

B: Right.

G: More tastefully, I guess.P: I think about the important content that we need to talk about when it comes to death and dying. Urban life, how people die in cities, anthropological implications, social implications.It’s death. It’s something everybody goes through it. I think there’s a stigma about it that no one wants to talk about it. We just want to push it away for as long as we can.

G: I think a lot of it has to do with the fear of death itself for some people. Wondering, you know, what’s going to happen, is it going to hurt, how am I going to die, and I think that’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. But in cases of  unexpected death it’s weird because people aren’t prepared to die so that family is just like “oh they’re dead what do we do, what’s the plan did they want this, or did they want that did they want to be cremated or buried”? You’re kind of almost left with a bunch of questions without answers unfortunately. A lot of older people, of course, have all this planned, what are they called pre-arrangements?

B: Yeah.

G: Pre-arrangements. But you know younger people don’t have that, they don’t think about it. For me, at 29, I don’t think  do I want to be buried? Do I want to be an organ donor? Do I want to have an autopsy? I don’t think about those things. So I think it’s important to get the thought of death out there. In social media, I follow people on Instagram who have brought it to the forefront and it’s really nice to read those people’s encounters with death, in particular the pathologist or PA (pathologists’ assistant). A lot people send in photos to one person I follow and say “ I was in a car accident this is what my arm looked like”. I think people are weirdly drawn to look at death because it’s gonna happen and I think people like to see photographs of it. Gore.com, Faces of Death you know on VHS.

Even I feel like in America definitely, death isn’t talked about too much, but I think in third world countries people expect it. They see it often. Come to think of it, even back in the day. Like my dad lost his sister when she was young. I know people in the generation before us who lost someone young. But with modern  medicine, it doesn’t happen as often as it did. It’s very important but no one talks about it.  

P: What is the thing that you love most about your job?

G: What I really enjoy about it, going back to the human body as its own universe. It really is a beautiful thing, even in death because you have all of these different things that happen as soon as you die. Your body just knows what to do. In cases of homicide or suicide it’s interesting to see how, say for instance, blunt force trauma. How it occurs, how it happened, and how it makes the skull look. Even gunshot wounds. Looking into the wound, seeing how it fractured the skull. We get a lot of suicides, and that’s another thing I’ll talk about in a little bit. You get suicides where people use a shotgun, put it in their mouth and pulled the trigger. Just seeing that is pretty interesting because I think a lot of people don’t realize how fragile human beings are. I mean simple as that, basically the back of your skull is gone, your face is deformed because your skull is no longer in one piece. Seeing the human body in different stages is interesting because death for everyone looks different. Sure you’ll have people commit suicide the same way, murdered, or just die naturally, but it’s all different for each person. So it’s almost like something new everyday.

And back to the suicide comment, there’s a lot of suicides that are  also not talked about. You know you don’t see things on the news. So and so committed suicide, and it’s only when a celebrity does it, right. There’s a lot of people choosing to kill themselves, and that’s another thing that’s not addressed why are these people killing themselves, unfortunately. And sometimes in very violent ways as well. You see a lot of male suicides, a lot of hangings and gun suicides. Again, if someone wants to take their life, you can’t really talk them out of it. In the last month, we’ve seen a lot of young people, like 18-19 or early 20s.

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Inside a morgue 

P: Are there busier times of year for you guys than others?

G: I haven’t been there long enough to determine if there is. Probably, you would probably know, Sarah,  if it’s Christmas and Christmas is coming up.

B: I remember the holidays being the busiest time for us.

G: Right. So I guess, unfortunately, I guess the holidays can be depressing….

Other times of the year might be different depending on location. I would assume kind of other places with more gang violence would have a different dynamic than we do. I know that the major city I work in  has gangs, but I don’t we have a serious problem like LA or Chicago has.

B: So, is there anything that you hate?

G: A lot of people talk about the smell of death. It’s something that you kind of grow accustomed to. No one is putting stuff on their top lip. I think it probably makes it stick to you worse.

B: It’s a bad mix of smells.

G: Yeah, for sure. And of course the decomposed bodies that we deal with in forensic anthropology, they smell different than the bodies that are fresher. You know there are so many different smells. Someone who just died smells different than someone who died ten days ago. It’s a bunch of different smells, but once you smell the  smell of death you know what it is. But as far as other things that bother me, it’s unfortunate when I see someone so young take their own life. It reminds me of how at some points in my life, it’s like “oh gosh is this ever going to change”. But as you grow older, you’re like “wow, why did I think that way”. Things change for the better and to think what if I killed myself at 19, it would have ended there. What else? I guess sometimes cases that languish in the hospital are very full of fluid and that can be very messy. Especially individuals that are full of ports and IVs…

B: They smell medicinal too.

G:  You know  murders and how people are murdered, it’s very… It’s really terrifying to think someone could bludgeon someone in the face to death.. There was a case where a person beat someone with a tire iron in the face.. It was very gory, you just don’t look human after something like that. There’s pieces of you everywhere. The human body is fragile.

You know there is someone I follow on Instagram, CrimeSceneCleaners. So you get to see the scene after the victim has been removed, He takes pictures of what he cleans up and it’s messy. It’s not what the TV shows depict , it’s not. It’s very messy, there’s a lot of clean-up. People do very strange things to dead bodies. And also I think that people think they can cover up evidence of a murder by burning a body or dismembering it. You are able to tell the majority of times if a person was shot before they were set fire to or how many times they were struck using an object. You can’t getaway with a murder in this day and age it isn’t easy.

Even  I had a friend who was murdered. And basically this guy slit his throat so deep he basically cut his head off. Then he stabbed him over 120 times. Stabbing someone that many times is an exercise. So you’re (stabby noise) a 120 times, you know someone took a break and went back to stabbing. And of course that guy got convicted and whatnot. Just based on how terrible the crime was, he was sentenced to max time.

P: Yeah.

G: Again, it’s crazy what people do to other people. Even people like Jeffrey Dahmer. What he did to people was insane, tortured and assaulted them. You know what I really don’t like about death is watching something die. I don’t want to see that. That’s really terrifying to me. I think it goes back to my own mortality and I think the only way one gets used to that is to see it and understand what’s going on in the body, and you know a lot of people just don’t want to understand that.

Oh, also I’ve noticed that there are a lot of podcasts lately talking about murder, murderers, and serial killers. It’s something that people like to hear about no matter how gruesome it is. They’re interested in the topic. I had a friend ask me if there were any serial killers going on in the area after listening to a podcast. I had to tell her that I didn’t think so.

B: Like murder porn. A weird, weird fascination.

G: Yeah, a morbid curiosity. It’s taboo, I like that kind of thing because it’s interesting. I get asked a lot how can you do what you do? How can you do something like that? For me, cases that are skeletonized for the most part, they no longer look human and that makes it easier. Also, they’re not people I know. It would be different if it was someone I knew, or someone I cared about, it would absolutely be different. And I don’t think that I could do it if it was someone I cared about. I don’t know these people, and of course I can have compassion for these people, but it’s different than knowing that person unfortunately.

B: Okay, so what city would you like to die in, and why?

G: I feel like I don’t want to die in the county that I work in. Simply because I don’t want the people I work with seeing my dead body. But if you think about it like I’m dead why do I care. But I still do.

B: Like why do I have that expectation if I’m not going to be conscious for it anyway.

G: Right? Exactly. You know you see everything. I’m not hiding anything, but I think that’s a natural response like you’re vulnerable, and you’re obviously not in control of the situation because you are dead.

B: Right?

G: But yeah, so nowhere in that the county I work. The county I live in  would be better, right now.

P: Alright. So, do you see yourself in this field in the next 10 years?

G: I would think so. I think if there are opportunities that are presented to me, I would take them. I think right now in my path, the things I have done I’ve been presented the opportunity to do it, so I’ve done it. Having a background in a little bit of everything is good. And if there are job openings, that would be great! I understand that it’s almost like a niche community. If there isn’t, then there isn’t. So for me, I’m just going to roll with the punches. Like I always say, I’m just a boat on a river, and it’s just taking me where it’s going. But I enjoy it, I do enjoy it. Until there are no other opportunities, I’m probably going to stay.

B: So, if you could be any animal in the world, what animal would you be and why?

G: Oh god. I just, uh, I don’t know. I guess being any animal would be interesting. You know, do I want to live in North America, do I want to be an African animal, or like a European animal, you know? I guess a mountain lion would be really cool. A snow leopard would be really cool, but people would hunt me and then kill me. So, I guess a fat happy house cat would be great. You know, with someone who spoils cats, that would be great. No one’s going to eat me or hunt me. You know, getting waited on hand and foot.

B: All the belly scratches.

G: Yes! Don’t touch me, I’m done.

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Wayne County Morgue staff, 1973. The demographics of people who work in death care is changing. Many women, including Amber, are working with death today. Picture from the Detroit Free Press Archives

P: Obviously, you work for a large county, which is apart of a large metropolitan can you talk a little bit about how death and dying can be different in the city?

G: Yeah. I feel like in the city… I feel like there are more ways to die in the city, unfortunately. I’m not sure how to answer this because we do get cases from a more rural county. I just feel like being in the city, there are a lot more things, especially in a city with gun violence, there are more ways to die. For example, areas with lots of roads or freeways, car accidents would occur more.

Well, I guess where I intern it’s based off of demographics. They get a lot of people that die in the hospital, and a lot of big hospitals are in cities as opposed to in the country. One of the cities in the county I work  has a large African American population, so we see a lot of that population. But I guess it just goes back to the experience of death being individual, you know. I’m just trying to remember, I’ve only worked on two cases from a rural county  and they were both skeletonized. And I don’t know where the cases are from, they don’t often read that off during inspection.

P: What’s your preferred term: expired, dead, passed away?

G: You know, I was just talking about this with someone and ‘languished’ is a terrible term. It just sounds awful.

P: Languished?

G: Yeah, yeah. Languished in the hospital. They use expired a lot too.

P: That’s what I’ve heard.

G: They just expired.

P: Like in the fridge.

G: I expired. Deceased. Oh, decedent is another good one.

B: So, what does it mean to you to leave a legacy?

G: I guess to leave a legacy is something you can, that’s pass-on-able. Things that you teach other people, or just memories that you have together. Especially with someone who has a graduate degree, you’re almost expected to build on other people’s work, and you’re expected to do research in order to make  a name for yourself, even when you go on to your PhD or tenureship, it’s all about publishing, publishing. For me, it’s like if I’m publishing, and ignoring everything else in my life, is that a legacy really? Like if the people you care for are put in second place is that worth it? Unfortunately, I feel that in my field of study, you have to choose either the people you care for or your career. And that in itself is difficult. So knowledge is important but who’s going to remember you personally after you die, right? Sometimes I look at research papers and I think who is this person outside of being a scientist? Unfortunately, people outside your field, lay people, don’t look at names on research papers if they even look at research papers at all. I feel like as an academic it’s hard to balance between your personal life and your career. To me, I guess legacy is more in terms of the people you spend time with, and when you share memories with people. You know my grandma just died recently, and I didn’t know her that well. And I feel bad because she had all this information I could have tapped into, and I didn’t. So all the information she had from the 80 years of her life has been lost. Had I been close to her I could have passed her legacy and information on. I guess in the academic sense, a legacy is all about publishing papers and it sounds miserable.

I guess what I want to end with is saying is I feel with the internet death has become more popular and they’re making death part of an everyday conversation. People are talking about death more and the internet has a lot to do with that. I just read an article about death cleaning as a Scandinavian thing. Older people start to clean their house, like who’s going to want this after I die. So that got me thinking, oh wow you’re right, who’s going to want this after I die? It means something to me, not anybody else. I feel like in America in particular, at the rate that we buy things… Death is just a part of life as scary as it is we’ll all die in  varying incidents. It’s a unique experience for each person.

 

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