Death by SuperNova

Julia Horbaschk

2019 - Ongoing

Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg, Germany; Paris, Île-de-France, France; Winterthur, Zurich, Switzerland

Supernova: “An astronomical event that occurs during the last stellar evolutionary stages of a massive star's life, whose dramatic and catastrophic destruction is marked by one final titanic explosion. This causes the sudden appearance of a "new" bright star, before slowly fading...”

"Death by SuperNova" is an emotionally charged body of work produced between 2000 - 2019 and it's ongoing. It is a series of self portraits taken in Germany, France and Switzerland – a reference to the way my father used to “escape” trying to find his identity by means of travel.

Out of the blue in 1993, at age 52, my father committed suicide. I have never fully recovered from the shock. But I have found a way to live on.

The world keeps on turning.

Thinking about my father’s death is like watching the supernova of a dying star. NASA explains this very simply: “When a star explodes, it shoots elements and debris into space. Many of the elements we find here on Earth are made in the core of stars. These elements travel on to form new stars, planets and everything else in the universe.”

I am one of the elements left by my father. 

By juxtaposing the images of myself with the composites of dying stars kindly shared by NASA/ ESA, I want to draw a parallel between myself, my father’s explosive life and the universe. A father I only had a very short time with. A father who faded from my life.

A father who only exists in fragments and memories.


For many years I have been ashamed of how my father died and I felt as I have to cover up his "death by suicide" due to stigma. When I did finally tell the reactions were horrendous. From embarrassment to religious judgement to isolation, I have not received an empathetic response.

The self portraits reflect my paralysis over his death and our universal fear of dying -  to disappear without a trace, without having lived our lives fully, without anyone remembering us.

It's also a tribute to a person who was terribly conflicted, good, bad, brave, ugly and mad and who saw no other way than to disappear. Have we not all been there?

I wanted to freeze time and preserve the memory of a disappeared father in a unique way.

There is a theatrical element within the work - the photographer becomes the actor. As Josh Shipp puts it: “What we can’t speak out we act out”.  In some of the frames I put myself literally “on the edge” to provoke feelings of discomfort. This coupled with the awe inspiring images of the supernovae juxtaposes the fragility of life with the vastness of our universe.

The body of work is an expression of grief as well as hope. Hope that we can talk more openly about death, that suicide rates will fall and that people can live more authentic lives. Furthermore the project aims to to raise questions about our relationship with death and what role photography & the arts have (had) in this such as Francesca Woodman’s haunting self portraits.

However, the work contains humorous elements too and some of the portraits are inpired by the fake deaths in the film “Harold and Maude (1971)”

This work provides an opportunity to continue the dialogue on photography’s capacity for interdisciplinerary practice and it feeds into several contemporary concepts such as the autobiographical, the intercultural, photography & science, photography & health, social science, the archive and more.


The initial self portraits were taken on professional slide film on my Leica RE between 2000 - 2002 during my Inter-rail travels within Europe tracing the footsteps of my lost father.

It was a playful and cathargic process that I did alone using a tripod and self timer.

The slides were hidden in my attic and emerged again in 2015 when I first saw the depiction of a supernova taken through the Hubble telescope. The concept of the project slowly appeared and the diptychs were finally produced in 2017 when I talked about the suicide of my father for the first time.

Most images of our universe are widely accessible and Creative Commons licensed, which adds to the rich fabric of photography’s democratic reach, something I value and appreciate greatly. Once the project is funded it will be made available under a CC attribution license also.

I see the work projection mapped onto two adjacent walls as in the ‘vision’ provided or simply projected straight onto an object, wall or ceiling. Eventually, sound art will accompany the piece to convey the darker undertones of the work - please see the video vision. There are over 20 self portraits I have taken for more diptychs to grow on an ongoing basis as we discover more suitable Supernovae. Their colours pallet is one of the key denominators for my work.

My interdisciplinary approach includes contacts to astronomer groups, psychologists and a vast artist network, which adds a unique flavour to the project allowing it to evolve in scope with potential for workshops & community engagement.

The grant could fund high-res scanning of remaining portraits, any projection mapping needs and participatory workshop development.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year almost one million people die from suicide. This represents a global mortality rate of one death every 40 seconds.

Youth suicide is increasing at the greatest rate. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15–29 year olds globally.

Although men are more than 3 times more likely to take their own lives it is worth noting that the female suicide rate in the UK is at its highest since 2011. (Samaritans Suicide report 2017)

Suicide is a significant social issue in the UK and around the world.

I'm aware of the sensitivities the work may raise please see below links for support:


Original images by EAS/NASA permitted use under: "Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license" (including alteration and publicity). Please use relevant credit lines as per title + diptych portraits & video acknowledgement ©Julia Horbaschk

Please note I have no direct association to any organisations mentioned and my views may not be theirs.

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  • Orion's Head (Red), NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Laboratorio de Astrofísica Espacial y Física Fundamental

  • Carina Nebula, NASA, ESA, N. Smith (U. California, Berkeley) et al., + The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

  • Eta Carinae, NASA, ESA, N. Smith (U. California, Berkeley) et al., + The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

  • Orions Head (Green), Orion's Head (Red), NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Laboratorio de Astrofísica Espacial y Física Fundamental

  • Crab Nebula, NASA and ESA, Acknowledgment: M. Weisskopf/Marshall Space Flight Cente

  • NGC 7250, ESA/Hubble & NASA

  • Star Birth in Messier, NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: R. O'Connell (University of Virginia) + the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee

  • Vision 1

  • Vision 2