Every quarter I write a piece for the APS Focus page in Australian Photography magazine. This is my latest piece, published in the December 2017 issue now in newsagencies.
Are there no-go zones when it comes to what we photograph?
My local photographic society recently held a most interesting discussion regarding the ethical questions that need to be considered when taking, or perhaps more importantly, publishing street photography. We talked, and shared views, about such things as our whether photographing children in third world countries that we visit was the same as international tourists photographing Australian kids. We debated whether photographing homeless people is appropriate. We considered whether street photography involves a different set of ethical principles to other areas of image capturing. We compared what we might do with the practices of the paparazzi photographers who have come under fire.
But the area I want to discuss here is somewhat different to street photography. It relates to a much more personal, or intimate, time for most of us. We photograph most of the major events in the lives of our family members. We capture images of our children from very soon after they are born, at their baptisms, each time they have a birthday, at times like Christmas, during their involvement in sports or other activities, appearing in school concerts (provided the school allows it), and arriving at their Year 10 or 12 formals.
Later in their lives, we photograph people when they graduate from secondary school or university, when they get engaged or married, when women are “heavy with child”, and even at the time of birth. All through our lives we capture images of family and friend gatherings. We photograph our parents as they get older. Occasionally other people even photograph us when we aren’t behind our own cameras.
Nowadays vast numbers of images of ourselves, our friends and our family members are captured on the cameras built into our smart phones.
But it seems there is at least one area of our life journeys that we generally do not photograph in my culture. I’m thinking about funerals. Yes, we photograph our friends and families at the wakes or other gatherings that follow the celebration of the departed one’s life – because we must take the opportunity presented by the fact that we have all come together. After all, it is so often at such occasions that we catch up with others that we rarely see in person!
However, in my experience it is rare to see photographs taken during the funeral service or, indeed, afterwards until that family photo opportunity is taken at the wake. I wonder why? Is it just my personal experience and you are saying to yourself that I must move in very different circles to you? Or am I right and it is also your experience? As an aside, I note that I have seen videos made of funeral services much more than I have seen still photography taken at them.
I recall seeing, and photographing, funeral processions when traveling in Europe – largely because the “hearse” was ornate and seemingly from another era. I have seen images of funeral occasions in some exotic overseas locations published in newspapers or magazines. Because the locations are exotic to us?
Of course, there are always photojournalists at the funerals of people in the public eye for one reason or another. And, obviously, they photograph the funerals – at least the crowds outside that include other celebrities.
But how often have you seen photos taken when you have attended the funerals of ordinary folk? How often have you taken images yourself at such events? If, like me, it is rare for you to have taken shots at such funerals, why is that?
If we photograph everything else in a person’s life journey, why do we leave out the final step? Is it because we are grieving ourselves? Is it because we feel the immediate family would be offended? Does it just not occur to us? Am I in error? Are there other significant markers in the journey that we omit to photograph?
A search of my own digital or digitised images reveals just a few taken during funeral services. Only one of them is in a category that I would call personal, showing a mourner with head bowed just beyond his mother’s casket. Others are of the scene inside the chapel prior to a cremation, and of the flowers in the church or inside the hearse before it leaves for a cemetery. There are a small number showing mourners at the graveside gathering around the casket before it was lowered into the grave.
And there are a few taken as a funeral cortege assembled at the celebration of the life of the wonderful Australian photographer, Robyn Beeche. I think she would have been pleased that this near to last step of her life journey was photographed.