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Why Is This Woman Dying All Over the World?

Through her art project, “STEFDIES,” one woman sees the world in a whole new way: facedown.

On any given day, a casual scroll through Instagram is guaranteed to spark a hint of envy in even the most stoic of viewers. The super-saturated faraway landscapes, sunsets melting into dreamily calm waters, and majestic peaks and gorges of nature’s glorious making, often presented by suspiciously good-looking influencers in the foreground, are enough to tantalize anyone into daydreaming about travel. But as you peruse #travelsomeday, something slightly different might pop into your feed–something decidedly off–as user @STEFDIES rolls past. There’s the usual incredible scenery or the famous landmark making you wince with wanderlust, but look closer at the image and you’ll find what appears to be a woman’s corpse. OMG, is she OK?

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Yup. That’s STEFDIES. The artist behind the self-portrait project is London’s Stephanie Leigh Rose, who considers her work to be a meditation of life and travel. Through her quintessential flattened pose, STEFDIES experiences iconic and faraway sights seemingly comatose, lying facedown. Is it a commentary on Instagram influencers? A tongue-in-cheek response to the idea of a “bucket list”? Maybe. But scratch below the surface (or go beyond the initial Instagram grid) and you’ll find the photographic evidence of a woman who knows how to travel with abandon. 

Fodor’s first came across STEFDIES in 2019 when we awarded her Fodor’s Travel Influencer award for “BEST LOL,” and ever since, we’ve been like-and-subscribe super stans. This year and last brought a lot of thought of death and dying in the travelsphere, so naturally, we turned to STEFDIES to weigh in on travel in this godforsaken pandemic, what she really thinks about dying in public, and the strangest reaction a bystander has ever had while STEFDIES was “dead.” 

How did you come up with the idea to capture yourself “dead” in public?

There was an organic evolution to STEFDIES. The early STEFDIES photos were humor snapshots of my life, pretty much in times I was completely exhausted and amused by the situations I found myself in, and [I] wanted to capture these moments in time, to be able to remember and reflect on those points in my life that seem[ed] utterly ridiculous. So STEFDIES has always been a direct reflection of my desire to hold onto these seemingly minor or huge moments of my life that I knew would be washed away to the ravages of time or memory if I didn’t capture them in their proper moment. Never perfect, as perfection is not what I aim for, but merely the reality of the situation in all of its imperfections.

What was the initial reaction to these photos?

As I posted some of these initial shots, I received an incredible response from friends and strangers alike, something in the ridiculousness of these poses, or the reactions of the passers-by. It brought them joy…I realized I wanted to continue putting something positive into the world, while at the same time using art to synthesize my feelings and thoughts regarding our impermanence on this earth.

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Why “die” while traveling? 

In the simplest terms–life is very precious and many of us go about our days, or our travels, not completely being cognizant of the idea life is fleeting and will absolutely end at one point. For me, by dying at these places on my travels, I am truly living and reminding myself gently: “This time may never come again.” The official STEFDIES slogan is “Leave a mark.” I’d like to think I’m doing that.

We–the human creature–for the most part, walk around and go about our daily lives expecting to live forever. Time is of no consequence. The one thing we all have in common, as human beings on this earth, is that we will all die. That idea runs through my work–at the end of the day, we all share this one basic thing in common. And if we all share this one basic human act, why must we all insist upon differences?

Do you pick places to “die” before you book your travel, or do you travel and then “die” where you feel inspired?

I never pick a place or pre-plan a shot. All of my photos have happened organically. All of the photos come from being inspired in the moment. Some moments are fantastical, and other moments are quiet and mundane. No moment is better or worse. Like life.

How much do you manipulate the scene first? 

I truly capture my shots/pictures in the exact moments I stumble upon them. I do not manipulate anything about the scene or bystanders–nothing is changed at all. My work is about impermanence and permanence. There is impermanence in a moment/place/sunset/the people walking by/etc…The permanence comes from inserting myself, my character of STEFDIES, into this moment. This “captured” moment in time.  

How do you get these shots?

All STEFDIES images occur spontaneously in my daily life. This is why a STEFDIES image is the opposite of a selfie. A selfie has controlled conditions, specific lighting, makeup/hair/wardrobe, an agenda, and is focused on the individual personality–it is a contrived and manipulated image distorted to achieve the desired result. STEFDIES is the polar opposite–I get one chance to get the shot, [and] if it doesn’t happen, c’est la vie. We have one life to live, and we don’t get re-do’s–I would like to think I try to capture that feeling, that fleeting sense of life and its impermanence, in my photos.

But logistically–who takes these photos for you? 

Trade secret. A huge part of the fun of STEFDIES is the mystery.

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In general, how do other people react when they see you taking a STEFDIES?

It really depends on the city [and] culture where I take the shot. In Paris, for example, no one even noticed, as they just assumed I was a crazy artist. Which I really liked, as it allowed me to run around the city and get these amazing shots. I do sort of worry, though, if anything actually did happen to me if anyone would [have helped]? There have only been about five times in all the years I’ve done STEFDIES that people came over to ask if I was OK.

What is the reaction you are trying to elicit from a viewer of your photos?

The viewer determines their reaction. I specifically leave my photos as ambivalent as possible so the viewer may use their imagination. There are definitely themes in my work, but I shall leave those up to the viewer to determine. Selfies are constructed to elicit certain emotional responses, my anti-selfies aim to do the opposite.

What have been some reactions of the people around you as you die?

It’s an interesting thing to be asked what I “witnessed” as I don’t actually see what’s happening in the moments of taking my photos. I am completely facedown–mouth, nose, full face on the dirt/ground/earth– and my long thick hair covers my ears completely. I am without sight or sound.  I am without my senses and completely vulnerable…so I only see the image when it is “developed” just as the viewer does. I give up control when I take my photos.  

Much of the time no one notices, or if they do notice–they do nothing. We currently live in a culture of non-responsibility. No one wants to be responsible for another person. It is “someone else’s problem.” It is quite shocking actually. Many times people (if at a historical place, for example) are too busy taking selfies that they do not even notice the figure facedown on the earth.

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Speaking of facedown in the earth, what’s it been like getting up close and personal with the dirt, street, etc.?

Lying facedown is absolutely gross but I honestly am so used to it now, and I’m so “in the moment” of being in my body and doing the shot, that it doesn’t register. And make no mistake my face/lips/nose/whatever is absolutely plastered smack down on the hot pavement/wet sand/dirty floor/mud, etc. It’s only when someone reminds me to wipe my face off that I notice I’m covered in crap. My lips are always dirty, which is actually now making me shudder to think about. It will never change though–I will always continue to put my face “smack dab” on the earth.

Has there ever been a ground that was too gross to “die” on? 

As far as avoiding a place because it’s too filthy…NEVER. Not once has a location stopped me or given me pause. But I do obviously respect the laws of public places, and do keep my safety somewhat in mind.

Any choice moments? 

I did a little video of the waves washing over me in [STEFDIES at Myrtos Beach] on Instagram.  It looks beautiful, but absolutely painful! The beach isn’t soft sand, but rather rocks and pebbles, so the waves were effectively rolling my poor face back and forth against the stones–over and over–and I [couldn’t] reach out to cover or protect my face…but of course I didn’t think that beforehand, as there is no rehearsal or staging, there is only “doing.” So that was a complete surprise [at] the moment. I do remember thinking that I understood suffering for one’s art after that…literally.

Another moment was in Arles [a major photographic festival in France] where I was exhibiting my work, and I decided to do a STEFDIES in front of some street art [STEFDIES in front of big cat]. Well it was about 100 degrees out and this was high noon [on] uncovered asphalt, just boiling in the sun… I’ll let you work out the rest. I’ve never actually burned my skin on pavement before that day.

Has anything changed your perspective about getting up close with germs during the pandemic?

Not really. As my face is smushed to the ground and covered by a “mask” of hair, I’m actually pretty safe from exchanging air with others. Now that I think about it, I don’t actually touch anyone while doing my pictures either. So really my photos have not had to change at all since I do not come face-to-face with people, nor do I interact with anything but the ground. So, BOOM–creator of the perfect pandemic art form. Almost.

What is the strangest reaction from a bystander you’ve witnessed?

In Paris, I had a highly intoxicated man throw himself on top of me [while in the STEFDIES pose], essentially pinning me to the ground. I have the photos which have never been released.

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Approximately how many STEFDIES photos have you taken?

There are many attempts but not all photos come to fruition. I would say [I’ve taken] over 1,000 different images, but [only] a few hundred useable ones, and out of that only a handful that make it out on social media. One of my original intentions was to have a series of coffee table books that chronicle the STEFDIES series, so many images have not been released as they are being reserved for the book series.  The images the viewer happens to see [on Instagram] are the 25% of images that are useable.

Do you know if other people have started taking them as well?

STEFDIES has quite the following–as it should–they are super fun to do and always get a good laugh! Many people will send me their interpretations of the STEFDIES pose, which I love!

What would you recommend to those who would like to?

Just have fun and commit to the process! Don’t be afraid to look silly, and remember to be safe. 

Do friends and family worry that this is macabre/suicidal/unhealthy?

Omg, absolutely not, they LOVE LOVE IT! They understand my work is a celebration of life, an acceptance of the impermanence of life, and therefore a commitment to embracing every single moment we are lucky enough to get on this earth. Also–I kind of think it’s better to laugh than cry, so there’s that.

What do you think about dying in a public place? 

Like, if I really died in a public place? I haven’t given it much thought, and to be honest, I’d be dead, so what would I care?