Murray Ballard, a Brighton based photographer gave a presentation on the development and publication of his book – The Prospect of Immortality which is a study of the cryogenics movement and its members across the globe. From Murray’s website describing the project.
“‘Clearly, the freezer is more attractive than the grave, even if one has doubts about the future capabilities of science. With bad luck, the frozen people will simply remain dead, as they would have in the grave. But with good luck, the manifest destiny of science will be realized, and the resuscitees will drink the wine of centuries unborn. The likely prize is so enormous that even slender odds would be worth embracing.’ Robert C.W. Ettinger
In 1962, Robert Ettinger published ‘The Prospect of Immortality’, the book that gave birth to the idea of ‘cryonics’ – the process of freezing a human body after death in the hope that scientific advances might one day restore life. Fifty years later, between 2006 and 2015, I have undertaken an extensive photographic investigation of the practice Ettinger inspired. The photographs take the viewer on a journey through the small but dedicated international cryonics community, from the English seaside retirement town of Peacehaven; through the high-tech laboratories of Arizona; to the rudimentary facilities of KrioRus, on the outskirts of Moscow. Worldwide there are approximately 200 patients stored permanently in liquid nitrogen, with a further two thousand people signed up for cryonics after death. The project combines photographs of the technical processes involved, alongside portraits of the people engaged in the quest to overcome the ‘problem of death’. Whilst members have often been ridiculed for their views, I take an objective stance, allowing the viewer to consider the ethics of the practice, and to decide whether members are caught up in a fantasy world of science fiction, or genuine scientific innovation.” Murray Ballard, 2016.
Murray explained that he initially took some images as part of his degree studies as he happened to get to know someone who was involved in the movement in the UK. It seems clear a key part of his ongoing involvement has been his demonstrable attitude to be objective and neutral whereas most observers appear to be skeptical if not openly ridiculing the people involved. As a a result he gained the trust of the movement and obtained access, normally denied to outsiders, as the cryogenicists were confident their work would be presented in an objective fashion.
Apart from the basic curiosity inherent in the subject there were several interesting aspects of the project that emerged. Firstly was the longevity of the topic, Murray became known as a subject mater expert from the earliest days and was regularly asked to contribute images to articles on the subject, so it has always generated some income and exposure for Murray. Eventually it attracted arts funding which enabled him to travel to the USA, France and Russia. The most sophisticated facilities are in the USA, with a somewhat more rudimentary facility in Russia. The French interest was in relation to a french couple frozen, at their request, in their own industrial freezer and subject to a court case that abruptly ended when the freezer failed – highlighting the issue of the need for high degrees of resilience in any such system.
Murray’s role as the “go to expert” has continued post publication of his book and he is regularly approached to talk on the subject including invites to several TV talk shows as an invited guest. Murray is always careful to present a neutral view of the process, clearly its an act of faith on the part of the participants as there is no evidence whatsoever to say that the process can ever be successful. Further and something I hadn’t understood is that the goal of the cryogenisists is an even greater leap of faith, namely; “Neuro-patients don’t want to come back to life in the same old body they died in. Instead they want to have a new body provided for them. They are only concerned with preserving the brain, which, they believe, will retain their memory and identity,” says Ballard.
Supposing for an instant that such a process ever became possible it would raise all sorts of ethical issues – e.g. population, if everyone could technically live forever what is the maximum population of the world that could be supported ? Where would the supply of donor bodies come from ? Would it ever be cost effective or would the issue of finance become the dividing line between those who could “return” and those still restricted to our allotted time span? So the whole movement is beset from the start with some truly difficult moral and philosophical questions and dilemmas.
The other aspect of Murray’s talk that caught my attention was the process of making a commercial photo book, covering not only the design process but equally important arranging the necessary finance – basically its a self funded undertaking, operating on thin margins as a print run of a 1,000 or so is considered the norm for such books with only the odd exception selling in much greater volumes. All of the overhead is up front in the capture, design and printing of the finished article, unit production after this is relatively low cost.
I think Murray has taken an obscure subject and made an interesting and objective documentary of the process. Personally I find the photographs somewhat cold – no pun intended – as they seem to me very detached, archival record of objects, facilities and to some degree the people. I attribute this as partly being down to the participants, generally they are defensive of their beliefs and reluctant to be photographed as history suggests they are often ridiculed.
All in all an interesting an informative insight into the worlds of cryogenics and photo book publishing.