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Jan 29, 2008

Outside Heath Ledger's Apartment

(click for larger size)

"For the illusion of credibility, it had to be framed as a tribute to a legacy,
instead of about earning money and ratings."

Deviating a bit from our usual, Peter van Agtmael forwarded these images to The BAG.  (If you remember, Peter offered us photos, two months back, of soldier's graffiti from a U.S. staging facility in Kuwait.)  As Peter relates:

These are pictures I snapped outside Heath Ledger's apartment on the night of his death. By the time I got there, the media hubbub had died down a bit, but I think these still represent the bizarre scene that ensued.

In this first image, with the photographers gathered, I could see this being made to look bigger than it was.  But this memorial of flowers was just a small tribute set up by one person -- like something you might see on the roadside for the victim of a car crash.  Because this was not an event of public grieving, the little memorial speaks to that.

Overall, there hasn't been much appreciation for the guy, and there has been little celebration for his work as an actor.  If anything, it seems there has been much more of an interest in his toxicology test.  Its been a pretty negative, if unsurprising reflection on media and humanity.

I think this second photo is the best one I took that night.  Posing for a picture, these two girls are clearly smirking but pretending to cry.

*** ** ***

Part of the reason I decided to go down to photograph the scene was a certain feeling of bitterness.  Last year, I shot a story about the life and death of a friend, a young army medic I met in Baghdad, who died of a drug overdose.  The circumstances of his death were equally ambiguous, but there is no doubt that his life was a mess, with severe PTSD from two tours to iraq coupled with the disintegration of his marriage.

When I heard about Ledger, the two stories seemed to fuse in my mind, saying something about how lives are valued in this country.

>> If you have questions or comments for Peter, he'll be available to respond in the discussion thread. <<

(images: © Peter van Agtmael/Polaris Images.  New York.  January 2008.  Used by permission.)


peter, it's always great to see your work and read your astute commentary. i'd like to know a bit more about the second image: it seems very, very odd to my innocent mind that these two girls would both be pretending to cry, but actually be smirking.

OK, i understand that the rush of emotion with a friend or in a crowd might lead you to cry when maybe you wouldn't on your own, and of course there is the desire to be publicly seen mourning, to be photographed doing so as part of a collective emotion.

but usually people put a more genuine effort into into it -- this photo, to me, looks like they automatically started to smile for your camera, realized that was inappropriate, and then tried to put on a more somber face -- which ends up looking like a smirk, and stupid.

But you were there and I wasn't -- so please tell us a bit more. Keep up the great work. Cheers from New Orleans (and teaser for you, Michael, John Edwards is about to concede his presidential candidacy here so I might have something for you later....)

Who set up the little barricade fence visible in the first image? It works quite well at holding back citizens, but not so good against those holding cameras.

One of the reasons Michael Moore's Roger and Me worked so well was that most folks change dramatically when there's a camera in the room. He was able to get by traditional gatekeepers and talk directly with principals by exploiting this awe of the camera.

Both of these images capture the gawkery of the whole Ledger Event. Not a visible whit of empathy for a young man dead, just cruising by the accident on the freeway. Bathed in floodlight and surrounded by cameras, those flowers have been reduced to props.

Waiting for the frisson when the body bag is brought down.

A life of celebrity is more real than our own.

Isn't it so strange-so much ado about one death in a world of death.

That's a real good question you pose. It was a very bizarre scene, so I'll provide the rest of the details for clarity. It went down like this. The deputy police commissioner came out to make a statement, and at that moment the press of cameras descended upon him, which is the scene you see in the background. Three girls who had been milling around the scene decided it would be a good moment for a picture. I casually watched them to see what kind of picture they would take under the circumstances, and they dipped immediately towards each other in mock-grief. Their friend snapped the picture (they are not looking at me, I just sidled up next to her...) and they took a look at the results. They seemed pleased, but decided to pose once more, this time flashing big grins. To me, their expressions in the first picture sort of sum up the whole event. The transparent facade of grief as an excuse for entertainment (or, by extension, ratings)....


look how happy they are, dancing on someone else's grave.

Half the people in our country are hooked on ADs or "anti-anxiety" medication, yet all are so, so eager to self-righteously tear into yet another celebrity with a drug problem. Ironic, or not?

Out in my wee hamlet the fundies are quite pleased that he is dead, because he had the gall to portray a homosexual on screen, and the said homosexual was that all-American conservative icon, a cowboy.

Clearly, it's a judgement, they say.

All those cameras are there to feed the bloodlust of Christian right, who are every anxious to hear every salacious detail of God's indignation finally bearing fruit.

And after they get done with that, they won't forget to take their Prozac in the morning.

So, yeah, it's an interesting commentary on our celeb-addicted culture, but also this is the guy who was a main actor in Brokeback Mountain, so there's a lot of schadenfreude on the part of those who thought that movie was beyond the pale.

The small rose placed there, looking lonely and isolated in a desert of floodlights and flashes, nicely symbolizes the people who actually cared about Heath Ledger's life and work as an actor.


All the worlds a stage
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
--W.S. 1599

When I die,
My movies will live on
for people to judge
what I was as a person.
--H.L. 2007

A life of celebrity
is more real
than our own
--Neal 2008

I'm glad it wasn't like this when I went down...just a few people solemn...many flowers and candles piled near the entrance... some camera crews with reporters... all respectful...tears.

Not all events are news.

Nothing to see here. Move along...Let's see what Brittney is up too...


The usual death-birds. How easy it would be for some photographer to set up the flowers and candles himself.

In fact, I think that might be a good piece of performance art for somebody to stage, with an entirely made-up "person of fame we're supposed to know", and see who pulls a long face.

it seems very, very odd to my innocent mind that these two girls would both be pretending to cry, but actually be smirking.

I'm not sure exactly how to respond to this except to cite the movie "Cloverfield" and its use of hand held cameras to "document" the event. One of the characters, Hud, the one behind the camera for much of the movie, even tells his friends he wants to film what is happening so people could see "what went down".

I think it is a desire or need on teh part of the younger generations to see what happened because if there isn't some form of visual evidence, it didn't happen. Print is passe for this generation of post-literates, so anything that happens must be filmed and then posted to YouTube or MySpace for the experience and the ones experiencing it to have validity. It's "what went down".

I think this is what you are seeing in the bottom picture; these girls are documenting their history which includes a stop outside the apartment building where a Hollywood actor has just died. It is too exciting to keep up a facade of somberness. It just shouts to their friend seeing their eventual post, "LOOK where we are!"

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