Photography towards the end of life

Photographing towards end of life

A very personal post! When the queen died it brought up a lot of grief for people, not just grieving for the queen but also our own grief. I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a long time, but never quite had the courage – I hope now is the right time!

My Instagram feed looks very idyllic! And the majority of my work is very happy, full of gorgeous babies and early motherhood, but I do also photograph families towards the end of life.
I’m always going on about consciously using images to shape our memories, and here are some thoughts around doing that towards the end of life, both for my clients and for myself. It is inevitable that we will lose people over time, and I hope this may help you the day you find yourself in that difficult situation.

Often when we lose someone close to us, the first thing we look for is pictures of them!

For my customers
1. It’s heart-breaking and hence I never talk about it, but I do photograph families who have been given devastating terminal medical diagnosis. I have photographed families who have subsequently lost parents or grandparents. These sessions are still lovely sessions, they are still full of love and happiness, and arguably these images are the most important pictures I take, and the most important films I make.

2. I carry heartache around sessions that never happened because people passed away before the sessions were organised. Pretty much always because people tried to get the whole family together and failed to agreed on time and place, don’t make that mistake, just make your pictures happen with the people willing to make the effort!

3. Lots of my pictures have been on the front of Order of Service at funerals/cremations. Those pictures were never intended for that use – they are pictures from lovely happy moments. We never worry about having pictures for that use (rightfully so, we shouldn’t!), but suddenly the day arrives. My images have been the framed portrait on the coffin and been in slideshows at crematoriums and wakes (slideshows are amazing in this environment). Sometimes they were just head shots of people far too young!!!

For myself
I took pictures when my dad was in hospital at the end (just on my phone)! I have detailed memories (lovely funny stories!) from his last few weeks – memories that I know would have just faded into a blur without the pictures!
It’s a crazy parallel universe when you are in hospital with relatives. The rest of the world outside carries on as normal, completely oblivious to your world being on pause and in turmoil.
I sometimes took pictures during this stretch when things were happening quickly, and I felt I might need to go back and process it later! Some of the pictures are a bit shocking now when I look back at them, but they also remind me how easy it is to forget what a situation really looked like.
If you are photographing in this situation, turn the sound of your phone so no one is hearing the sounds of pictures being taken, and for the most part keep your distance, be respectful to everyone involved.

At my parent’s house
Of course my dads belongings were all over their house! Evidence of his everyday life, pottering about. These things can’t stay forever after someone passes away, so I took pictures of some of those things. This possibly sounds crazy and pointless to some people, but I think it can also bring comfort to people, in that aftermath of all those visual reminds disappearing from the house. You might not need those pictures forever, but you can keep them until you feel ready to let them go.

The funeral
I did take a couple of pictures at the church and of the flowers, but to be honest none of those pictures bring me happy memories and I never look at them, and I don’t feel they are important to me. That might be different to you! I have a snippet of footage of our boys leaving flowers on the grave the next time we went out to visit and that is important to me (it’s just a tiny part of our family film from that visit). They didn’t go to the funeral, so that was their first trip out to a house without my dad in it.
I wish I’d taken pictures of the wake afterwards, when people came to the house – that part was lovely (I just plain forget to take pictures in the emotions of it all. In the relief of the horrid church part being over!).
We had a slideshow rolling at the wake and it was great – everyone kept watching those pictures over and over again, talking about the moments they remembered and the other people in the pictures – always do a slideshow 🙂

I had a lovely picture of my parents together printed and frame for the nursing home my dad went into. (He was only there a couple of days, but we didn’t know that would be the case!).
I got lovely little fine art prints made of my dad for myself, siblings and my mum. Just little ones to pin up here and there.

Lessons and regrets
I wish I had more audio and film with my dad, from before he got really bad! Even looking through the images again now for this blog post made me see how fast he changed at the end! That picture above of me with my parent is pretty much the ONLY picture of us together. Strangely I made that picture happen in August 2019, and by August 2020 (when we were able to go back out after lockdown) my dad was in hospital, so these are the first and last pictures of us together. Make sure you get a picture of your self and your parents – it isn’t all about pictures of your kids…

If you find yourself in the devastating situation where someone gets a terrible diagnosis, create some lovely situations where you can get amazing pictures and video! It doesn’t have to be big and fancy, just people together, a picnic, preparing meals, hanging out, talking about pictures or memories. You can do a little interview, or record conversations. Get your kids to interview your parents… somehow spark conversations to record! Even just reading a book to the grand kids, simple things that include voices.

Stop the stupid excuses!!!
I’ feel so upset when I think of the (frankly pathetic!) excuses people have given over the years and their sessions then didn’t happen because they ran out of time! Kids/people had football/swimming/nail/hair/whatever appointments so the whole family couldn’t find a time where everyone could gather, so everyone missed out!
Cancel everything! Make it a priority and get the blinking pictures, when people are at their best still!!!!
Sometime people may not “feel up to it”, but I promise it’s worth to make the effort! You can be at home, it can be super low key, but it’s ALWAYS worth making it happen!

Make time, take your pictures!!!
I’m not saying you have to book a photographer, but make the pictures and film happen!

I won’t have the right thing to say, but I’m willing to have the difficult conversations and help you take the right pictures xxx