Project explores students’ reaction to idea of death

How often do the thoughts of death, mortality and existence cross college students minds? Faced with a symbol of finality, how would they react? That’s what Jayson Kellogg wanted to find out with his photography project “Memento Mori.”

Taking its name from the Latin phrase for “remember you will die,” the junior sociology major’s collection of photos focus on different students reacting to a human skull that he bought on eBay.  Kellogg said the project started out as an assignment for a photography class, but evolved into a way of exploring human anxiety.

“I did two tours in Iraq with the Marines and being there you’re afraid of dying. It produces a lot of anxiety. While I was there, I dealt with death by not caring about my emotions,” he said. “I was just interested in my peers and contemporaries would deal with the subject matter.”

The project was showcased in Doheny Library on Friday as part of the College Commons’ Dehumanized Conference. Featuring more than 50 photos, it is an example of human reaction, as Kellogg gave the students the skull and then simply let them interact with it.

But, instead of quoting Hamlet and mourning Yorick, his subjects’ reactions left him surprised.

“Some people shocked me. You kind of have a stereotype of what someone’s going to do with an object. They’d probably not care or be freaked out by a skull,” Kellogg said. “But other times they’d break these stereotypes and really engage. It was really interesting.”

One student even took the skull and perched it on his shoulder like a parrot, much to Kellogg’s amusement.

For Kellogg, who served with the Marines in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, photography is a side project, but one that allows him to explore his surroundings and concerns.

“I did photography when I was in Iraq for fun on my own. It kind of takes you out of the scene,” he said. “It was relaxing and therapeutic for me.”

Back in the states and at USC, he kept an interest in photography, and found a way to showcase the work he did in Iraq.

“I had an exhibition of my art in the fall in VKC through the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics,” he said. “This is really the second thing I’ve really done with photography.”

Although he was out of the war, some of the questions it had raised in him remained, and what started as an assignment blossomed into a chance for him to explore those topics.

“The idea originated with the skull back in the fall,” Kellogg said. “I bought a human skull on eBay at the end of the fall semester, and then I sat on it wondering how I was going to use it in an artistic piece. I wanted to turn to this theme in my life and deal with it in a more productive way.”

When he started, he was not expecting the variety of responses people would have to the skull. He was expecting more of a shared reaction to it, but one that was out of the ordinary for regular college students.

“A human skull is a universal symbol, symbolizes death and mortality,” he said. “It’s dealing with death and mortality. It’s a pretty heavy truth, it’s pretty intense. It’s not like people sit there in the middle of Trousdale and think about the most existential question of life.”

Unfortunately, the project was only displayed during his part of the conference, giving audiences only 30 minutes to see it. Kellogg is having trouble finding a place on campus that will showcase the photos.

“I’m putting the photos on my website, but I’m looking to find another place to show them,” he said. “It’s hard to find a place to present to showcase student work unless you’re an art major, which I’m not.”

With “Memento Mori” complete, Kellogg is starting plans for a new project for the summer and fall. Like his past work, it will deal heavily with introspection and personal reaction.

“It’s going to deal with issues of relationship and sex and identity and connection,” Kellogg said. “This piece is going to try and convey what it is to be a twenty-something in college. You’re learning to be an adult, to have a relationship. It’s not an easy transition. Society makes it a grand whole thing with sex and youth, and I’m going to try and convey that with these photos.”

Despite the broad focus of his topic, Kellogg’s reasons behind the project remain much more personal.

“In my experience, having to confront the things I’ve been through, I can relate to myself much better and in a much more intimate way,” Kellogg said.