Meet The Photographer Who Spent Four Years In A Forensic Morgue

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Patrik Budenz

The life of working with dead bodies has been the subject of some of the more popular recent television series in recent years, from CBS's CSI to HBO's Six Feet Under. But what is it really like to work in the industry?

All workplaces are understandably reticent to allow reporters and other outsiders to come in and investigate what goes on during their workday. And that anxiety is even more heightened for the work of preparing dead bodies. But German photographer Patrik Budenz was able to convince the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences in Berlin to allow him to spend four years researching and taking photographs of their workplace. Budenz is also the author of two books on the subject, "Post Mortem" and "Quæstiones Medico-Legales". AOL Jobs spoke with the photographer about his investigation, which was documented in Wired.

How did you convince the Institute to let you inside?
The first the answer when I asked was "No, this is not open to the public." But I convinced the director to read a small paper of mine about the legal issues so I could demonstrate that I was prepared. And three weeks later he called me back and agreed. He had never let anyone in before, and he hasn't done it again. There was once a painter, but that's it. I am the only photographer.

At a press conference he was asked why he let me in. He said he didn't know, but that he had a good feeling. I think it was asking in the right tone at the right moment and that I showed I was prepared.

What was the motivation behind the project?
I started in 2007, the year CSI began in Germany. (And continued to work there until 2011.) The idea was to show their workplace and what they do to show the contrast from what's shown on television. When I watched CSI on television I felt, "This can't be real." So I wanted to know -- what's it like in reality?

Initially, the project was scheduled for five days. But each day I would show the pictures from the day before and the workers saw I was showing what the workplace was really like. So they told me I could come again. I ended up coming for four years.

Patrik Budenz
What did you learn about working in the morgue?
The first thing I learned is that of course it's not a normal work environment but it is an ordinary workplace. The people who work there are not strange and they don't have morbid minds. They have normal interests, they tell jokes, talk about movies, what they had for dinner the night before, just like everyone else. Some things, of course, do change the environment. Like working with a dead baby. Most people, however, die of natural causes. So if you see some dead person who's 90 years old who died of a heart attack, you say, this is how it should be. This is natural. And that doesn't upset the workplace.

If you ask the workers why do they do what they do, it's not about death. It's the job of a detective. It's trying to figure out how someone died. It's about the investigation.

How do the workers get used to the environment?
If I were to go there today it would be completely normal. For me, it took one or two weeks to feel like it was totally normal. But there are always things you are going to see that still take time to get used to. Like seeing a body after it's been hit by a train. Those images stay with you.

Courtesy of Patrik Budenz Patrik Budenz
What surprised you about the work of dealing with a corpse?
It's amazing what you can find out from investigating a corpse. Maybe the workers have some information to start, but it's a puzzle. But you learn what a heart looks like after a heart attack -- the muscle looks very different. Or a liver from someone who drinks too much alcohol. The workers are able to find out almost everything with all the new technology that detects the smallest amounts of toxic substance.

How many workers are needed for the job?
At every table, there are two or three people working at each autopsy table. And there were five tables in the autopsy room. In total, there were about 25 doctors and about 40 to 60 total workers on staff including police and coroners. So for one body, eight or nine people can work on it in total. So what you see on television, with one person working on one body in an empty autopsy room -- it's not like that.

Any cases that stick out from your investigation?
There was an old couple who decided to commit suicide together because one was ill and the other was too old to care for the other.

The gallery below displays the scene as witnessed by Patrik Budenz.


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