Photographs and Loss

I was speaking with a gathering of people who had experienced the premature loss of loved ones. These were not the kinds of deaths due to old age, the losses were of young people, people who had been taken far to early.

The subject of photography came up. Many chimed in that they regretted not having certain pictures of beloved people who are now forever gone. They felt an aching absence of group photos or snapshots of particular moments that were meaningful to them. This moved me very deeply, to hear the anguish of people who felt that moments had slipped by undocumented and now there was nothing to be done about it.

I have only three very precious family photos that include all five of us as a family. This is because I was the family photographer, always behind the camera. So there are thousands of beautiful, spontaneous photos of the children with their father - there are only three of all of us together when I handed the camera to a bystander. These three photos are staged, and not as evocative of feeling as most of our pictures. I enjoy them, but wish I had done things differently now.

And then, there were the pictures of our trip to Leavenworth, Washington from fall 2002. For years I grieved the possibility that I had lost those photos due to computer upgrade confusion... and was morose over the idea. When I found regular print photos of the trip in a box one day - I was overjoyed. Then I remembered that we had left on the trip without the digital camera by accident and had to swing into a convenience market to buy a disposable camera. I was both relieved and thrilled to have these precious pictures back in the archive of family treasures.

A Problem as Old as Photography Itself
Our ancestors and cultural counterparts might open our minds to different ways of understanding photography and death. For instance, it was convention in the 19th century to pose with personal items, like purses or scarves - that represented absent or dead relatives. This was a method to include them, emotionally, in the picture. Post-mortem photography (also called memorial portraiture or memento mori) were prevalent in the mid-1800s when daguerreotype made photography accessible to the general public. It was a practice of photographing the recently deceased as a way of producing a keepsake... this is still practiced in parts of central Europe. In India, it is a tradition to paste head shots of absent family members into wedding photographs. Culturally, these kinds of photos are not perceived of as trickery but a way to honor someone that was not present.

In America the joke about photo manipulation is the deleting of an ex-partner from a dozen years of vacation photographs with Photoshop, scissors or a magic marker, in a flurry of activity equal to Watergate.

As well, we hire professional photographic retouchers as a response to a media-saturated world. Since all images of the beautiful and famous are enhanced, ordinary people use retouchers to remove blemishes or double chins from photos to be posted on such pedestrian venues as MySpace and Facebook.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people lose all photos of beloved people and moments through disaster. Katrina victims, many of them having lost everything, find that rebuilding the photo library is among the hardest tasks. I read of a "Katrina Shower" - like a baby shower - where people gathered to shower a person with items needed to rebuild... and among the gifts were photos that others had in their collection that might have meaning to the recipient. I was also moved to read of an online image hosting company that offered free hosting to Katrina victims.

But, behind the scenes, people have hired professional photographic retouchers to create composite portraits of live and deceased people. Such manipulations demonstrate imagination born out of love and loss. Imagination and memory have never been subject to literal reality - they are always some form of revision. Photography, as well, has always participated in varying levels of distortion. The same photographer can create different impressions of the same scene by including some elements in the frame and omitting others, by changing lenses, or by adjusting the color and tone of the image.

In the next post, we will discuss ways to deal with the lack of good photos of your beloveds.