Photographing death tastefully :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing death tastefully

by David Peterson 0 comments

Death is not a subject that most of us like to talk about. It's inevitable, but we like to pretend like it isn’t. So it's not really something that we like to represent with our photography, either. After all, how can photographing death possibly be done tastefully? Read on to find out.

Death is a sensitive subject, so if you’re going to capture it with your camera you need to do it with a certain amount of sensitivity. Let’s start this discussion by talking about some of the ways we can represent death in general terms.

The symbolic approach

There are many universal symbols for death, such as a raven or a tombstone. Both of these symbols are going to make it obvious to pretty much anyone who views your photograph what your subject matter is, but without a seriously creative spin it may come off as crass or obvious. So while you certainly can use some of that classic symbolism, you might like your results better if you take a more subtle approach.

What do you think of when you think of death? Maybe it’s an empty chair, or a person alone on a beach. Maybe it’s a closet full of suits and ties. Maybe it’s a close shot of the twisted metal remains of a car accident. Your answer can be deeply personal or it can just be a general feeling—it doesn’t really matter so long as it represents the way you feel about the subject. And don’t worry if others don’t get it—that empty chair may not represent death to everyone, and that’s OK—the purpose of this kind of photography is to get people thinking, and it matters less exactly what they’re thinking about. And if the photo has meaning to you personally, it matters even less that other people understand it’s precise meaning.

Whatever subject you decide to photograph, it’s important to do so with class. A photograph of an animal’s skeleton can be beautiful or tasteless, depending on how it’s framed, photographed and presented. I like to convert these sorts of images to black and white, because black and white has a timeless look to it and it is also a great medium for bringing out texture and detail in this kind of subject. Remember that you should avoid gruesome depictions of death—that’s way too Hollywood and it can be upsetting for a lot of people. Instead, choose subjects that suggest the idea of death without shoving it down people’s throats.

Funerals and memorial services

When a person dies, we sometimes think that his or her loved ones would rather just pretend like the death never happened. Because we want to protect them from grief, we may avoid mentioning the person who died. We may try not to talk about death or the process of grieving. But most people who have lost someone close to them will tell you that that’s the wrong approach.

Talking about someone who has died is not a reminder of loss—that person’s loved ones never forget their loss, so it’s impossible for you to “remind” them of anything with your words. In fact remembering and talking about the deceased can be a healthy way to process and come to terms with a tragedy. And the same is true for photographs.

You may feel like a memorial service should be camera-free, and that’s understandable. It can seem intrusive to get a camera out during such a private occasion, but the fact is that people do appreciate having a photographic record of these events. Even though their grief will be raw in the early days, families will want to be able to look back and be reminded of how many people attended the service, who spoke and what memories were shared. The photos can also be a way to communicate a part of the family’s history to children who will be too young to remember or to adults who were not able to attend.

The important variable is that you ask first, so that everyone in attendance knows that you’ll be taking photos and has given consent to be included. And if you’re in the process of photographing the event and someone expresses a desire to avoid the camera, you need to honor that request. Finally, make sure that the family actually wants the photos, and isn’t just saying “yes” out of some grief-clouded sense of obligation. In other words, make sure they know that they can say “no.”

Gear and settings

Don’t use your flash. Just don’t. Flash is intrusive, and the last thing you want to do at a memorial service is be intrusive. Instead, use a 50mm prime lens or another lens with a very wide maximum aperture. If the service is indoors (as many are) you really need at least f/2.8, if only as a guarantee you’ll still be able to get sharp photos in the event that the light is lower than you anticipated. And don’t be afraid to turn up your ISO if you need to, even if that means turning it way up. High ISOs are necessary if you’re going to photograph a low-light event, and a little noise in your photos is a small price to pay in exchange for blur-and flash-free images.

Keep your camera in aperture or shutter priority mode—I recommend shutter priority because when you use aperture priority in low light there may be times when your shutter speed falls below an acceptable point. Of course none of this matters if the event is outdoors in brighter light, but when you’re indoors you need to make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the action.

Stay out of the way

It’s also really important that you stay out of the way. That’s going to make your job difficult, but there’s really nothing you can do about that except be creative. Think of how you can use unusual perspectives or angles to capture the event without being intrusive. You don’t want to step in front of a grieving person or butt into a tender moment. You don’t want to be an interruption or a hindrance. Try as hard as you can to be invisible. Now, how strictly you follow this rule depends a lot on whether you are a part of the service—did you know the person well, only a little or not at all? The more you knew the person and his or her family, the bolder you can be—to a certain degree. Respect should still be at the top of your list of priorities, regardless of how well you know the family.

Remember that you don’t necessarily need to show faces in order to get your message across. Try photographing people from behind, with their heads bowed or embracing, or zoom in on clasped hands. Funerals and memorial services often feature symbols—both religious symbols and personal symbols from the deceased person’s life. For example, the family may have wanted everyone to wear a certain color or bring a certain type of flower. They may have passed out remembrances of that person, such as touchstones or photographs. Try zooming in on one of these objects—use a large aperture so the people behind the object will fall into unrecognizable blur. Such an image may be suggestive of an afterlife, with the people in the background taking on a nondescript, almost angelic appearance.

Remember that how much you photograph depends solely on what you have discussed with the family. This is a difficult subject, but if you’re photographing the funeral you absolutely must know whether or not the family wants photographs of the open casket. Don’t photograph the deceased unless you have a very clear understanding that this is what the family wants.

After the service

You can still continue to honor someone long after their death by shooting photographs of the things they loved or moments that remind you of that person. Let’s say that butterflies remind you of someone you loved—you can create a beautiful and meaningful image that’s representative of that person by shooting photos of butterflies at rest, or butterflies traveling from one flower to another. A photo like that can make a wonderful gift for a family, too, even years later—it will show them that you still think of the person, and that’s a gift in itself.

Conclusion

Death means something to everyone—it’s in everyone’s future, whether it’s your own death or the death of someone close to you. If this is a subject that interests you as a photographer, just make sure you try to imagine how each of your photographs will look through the eyes of others—how will other people interpret what you’ve created? Your goal should be to create something meaningful if not profound, and to avoid imagery that might be upsetting to the recently bereaved. If you can do that, you’ll have conquered the subject of death—if only temporarily.

Summary:

  1. Symbolism
    • Photograph universal symbols like ravens
    • Think about symbols that represent what death means to you, personally
    • Frame your subject thoughtfully
  2. Funerals and memorial services
    • Why it's OK to take pictures of these events
    • Make sure you have permission and keep the family informed
  3. Gear and settings
    • Don't use flash
    • Use a wide aperture in low light
    • Turn up your ISO in low light
  4. Stay out of the way
  5. Take photos without identifiable subjects
  6. After the service
    • Photograph objects that remind you of the deceased

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
13 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.