death and the camera

Last week I mourned the death of my eldest uncle, who had died at the age of 80. He was the first of my parents' siblings to die, which is itself a haunting thought. My wife and children were there as well, and we saw (and, in some cases, met) many in my extended family whom we hadn't since the death of our grandmother some years ago. The threat of rain became only a drizzle during the burial, such that most of us had umbrellas, although they were barely needed. Having served in the army, he received military funeral honors, including a rare and moving rendition of "Taps."

I didn't realize until days later that not only had I not brought a camera with me, but I didn't even consider it. Perhaps that doesn't sound bizarre; I, however, nearly always have a camera with me (which doesn't imply that I'm always photographing).  Some benefits of using rangefinder cameras is their smaller size and lack of mirror (vs an SLR), so photographing with them is an exercise in subtlety and quietude. If I had attempted to photograph, few would have noticed. Would they have been offended if I had?

Perhaps even the suggestion of photographing at such a somber gathering is taboo. Our culture permits (and even expects) guests to photograph celebrations—joyous occasions full of smiles and laughter. These are the moments we wish to share and remember. These photographs fill our feeds and albums. But at a funeral? Who dares? The association between creating photographs and happy faces is so strong, so engrained, that creating them during the opposite seems demented.

Who is even capable? With sorrow comes tears, and, even at a minimal level, would limit seeing—obviously a necessary condition for photography. I experienced this when I photographed James Foley's memorial service on assignment for the Diocese of Manchester. About ten other professional photographers—all of whom had far more experience than I, for major news outlets and services, and certainly a few who knew him—were present. Once the service began, we were limited to the church balcony. At some point, perhaps while James' father was speaking, I couldn't contain my reaction any further. I had to step away and weep for Jim, for his family, and those of us who knew him even nominally. Not being accustomed to working in even such a controlled environment of sorrow (contrasted to the tragedy witnessed by these and other photographers throughout the world daily), I was unable to separate my own emotional reaction from my assignment.

Visually recalling my uncle's burial service days later, I recognized moments that I wished that I had—or at least that I could have—photographed. That's when I became aware that I had subconsciously chosen not to bring a camera. I wouldn't have created a great number of images, but just a few: the umbrellas in a semi-circle around the grave; the bugler performing; the final respects paid, slowly and deliberately. But I am also aware that, by making these, I would have removed my own mind from being fully present to my uncle's life and death, my own sorrow and that of his siblings and children, and reacting accordingly. Photography is an art of the moment, the present (unlike, eg, sculpture, painting, any form of writing—these can be made at any time), and I cannot honor both its demands and that of being a nephew at a funeral simultaneously.