“I DON’T PHOTOGRAPH GRIEF , I ONLY FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE”
It was a bold step to announce myself as a photographer of funerals almost a decade ago, and one I had been considering for some time. The words funeral and photograph didn’t sit together comfortably and I knew I would have to be thick skinned enough to take some harsh comments if this is what I was going to do.
Reality though, has shown that people are far more accepting and understanding than I expected and I have met with a great deal of interest and encouragement for what I do. Recently the BBC contacted me and filmed me at work as part of their series “Dead Good Job” on BBC2 last October so I was pleased for the opportunity to talk more on the subject when MTA asked me to be one of their featured photographers.
I didnt set out to photograph funerals but I have always had a leaning towards making images on the subject of death. Graveyards are fascinating – not just in their marking of and honouring the dead but also for their general ambience and setting. Cats in Pere Lechaise cemetery in Paris, childrens areas marked with balloons and soft toys, flowers, wildlife, tributes to famous people, understated markers for “common” folk. Its another world.
I can’t believe the beauty to be found in dead things. There is a certain loveliness in the curling petals of a tulip or a rose as it fades, and the incredible stillness of a lifeless animal that once was scurrying around has a fragility that is also delicate.
Applying this philosophy to the end of life is therefore not difficult to me and perhaps it was only a matter of time before I felt that I had to share this with the bereaved.
Having attended several funerals I would notice in particular, as a photographer and image maker, the more attractive and positive moments of the service. A shaft of sunlight on the coffin and flowers, a look or a touch during the eulogies, the chosen colours worn by the mourners – not always black, the flowers etc
I could see that so often these elements were unobserved by the bereaved yet I felt they were important and intrinsic to the day and needed to be recorded. So I chose to photograph those moments. Moments that the bereaved and main mourners will not notice at the time, that will pass them by as their emotion takes over but which they needed to see to help them through their grief and sadness.
We put as much effort these days into a funeral or end of life service as we do for weddings. Wherever and whatever happens it is important to capture the essence of the day in a sensitive way for the bereaved to be able to look back at and reflect upon positively. Here is where I must emphasize that I do not photograph images of grief – tears or weeping. We don’t need reminding of grief – sadly it is something that stays with us. I only focus on the positive elements of the day – and even at the most tragic times there are uplifting moments.
Images of an end of life service can be of great help during the grieving process on several accounts. First, they are a record of the day – what happened, who was there, the order of events. The day can pass in a blur of emotion (just as does a wedding) and the bereaved often find themselves questioning what happened, who was there and who they spoke to.
Secondly it is an important record of who attended. So often the main mourners are at the front of the gathering of people and so dont get to see who arrives later, maybe just for the service, or how many people actually turn up. Its encouraging and helpful to see how many people and who, come to pay their respects to the deceased. It is also a time when families are together – rarer now they live and work so far apart. Sometimes it is an opportunity for a family photo (I only do this when asked and would never approach people).
My Memory Books are also something to show others who may not have been able to attend the funeral. The elderly or inform cannot always be there or those who live further away. Sometimes it is not felt appropriate for children to be there, in which case at an appropriate time they may be shown the book.
Finally the Memory Book is something tangible to hold and keep after the event. It is an aid when talking to others about the loss of someone you have loved. We know that talking is therapy and that the bereaved need to talk so a book of beautiful images is a wonderful distraction for others who may feel awkward talking about death.
I researched for sometime to find the appropriate album in which to place my images. I wanted something unostentatious, that was not distressing to see if left on a coffee table. I also needed to find a system that was simple to work – in order to keep my prices fair I didn’t want to be spending hours struggling with complicated software.
MTA eventually proved to be my supplier of choice because they offer an excellent range of albums in a variety of sizes and colours. Every end of life service is unique and I never know how the finished product is going to look until I start working on it. I tailor the book to reflect each event. I have even used pink!
Despite having “turned over” to digital photography 9 years ago I still work in an analogue style. I grew up working with film (I still have, and use, a dark room) and I have limited patience with technology so MTA’s software is just fine for me (well I could do with a few more templates Martin!).
If ever I have a problem the phone is answered quickly and they are immensely helpful and informative. The lab looks after me well and understands my specific requirements as regards colour and tone and the turnover time between uploading the album and delivery is better than most other labs.
Im delighted to have found such a reliable and friendly supplier and hope we may continue to work together as I grow my business.
Since I ventured cautiously out into this area of photography a few others have decided to give it a try and I know that there will, in time, be huge demand for this type of photography work. However it demands great sensitivity, respect and sincerity. There are no second chances at a funeral, no stopping proceedings to get the right angle and no getting in the way of anyone or anything. You must be invisible!
Most importantly it requires passion. A passion to help others at a time of great need, and a passion to get it right. Later this year I will be running seminars for those interested in working in this area of photography. Contact details as given in this article.
Rachel Wallace – Farewell Photography