Photographing Funerals
July 20th, 2018 by David LaBelle

Johnny Grimm touches foreheads with his deceased mother, Barbara. 
Photos by David LaBelle

I watched from a distance as Johnny approached the casket. He had shown little emotion to this point, greeting people, shaking hands, talking about his beloved mother. Then came the moment: The floodgates opened and he could hold back his tears no more.

My own eyes blurring, I stayed focused on him and made five or six pictures of my cousin. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see several heads turn and cast puzzled, concerned looks at me. I could read their thoughts: How dare this guy shoot pictures of this raw moment of grief?

It was a tender, some might even say private, moment. But neither Johnny nor his brother, Arthur, felt any intrusion. They know photography is one of the ways I experience and make sense of the world.

For me, photographing a funeral is less about showing loss and grief and more about celebrating love and connection during these times.

There is a time to make pictures and a time to put the camera down and share what is happening. It is a matter of knowing the difference.

I remember a funeral in Kansas for a little girl struck and killed by a car. I practically watched her die in the street.

Her mother asked if I would make a few pictures of her only daughter in the casket. I agreed. But many of those gathered neither knew me nor were aware of the mother’s request. Several people yelled at me and threatened to fight.

Grief—especially when born of the sudden death of a child—can be wild, unreasonable and dangerous. For some swimming in heartache, attacking others (like a photographer) is a way to cope with their frustration and show how much they care.

Often, their anger is an act of displaced aggression.

Photographing funerals is not for the faint of heart. Making meaningful pictures in emotionally charged situations requires a little courage and a lot of confidence that comes only through clear motives. We should be careful not to judge another’s intentions.

If we have been taught it is disrespectful to make pictures at funerals, during church services or moments of pain, we naturally view the photographer as an insensitive voyeur.

It takes resolve to deflect the stares and whispers of those wondering how you can be so cruel, heartless or insensitive to make a picture at such a time. Here are a few tips:

  • Dress so as not to draw undue attention to yourself. The more I can blend in and become invisible, the better.
  • Move slowly and deliberately. Show reverence for the dead and those gathered to pay their respects.
  • Deliberately choose the moments you press the shutter. Do not overshoot. Be an artist, thoughtfully composing moments you feel best tell the story and represent the event.
  • Make eye contact. Allow people to see into your heart. I may smile, but I do so subtly.
  • Avoid using flash unless you have talked with the family and they are comfortable with you being close enough to make pictures with flash.
  • Read the situation. Watch faces and body movements to measure volatility. Remember that sudden, young, violent deaths call for extra caution.
  • Respect religious and cultural customs and traditions by doing your homework. Jewish funerals tend to be different than Native American funerals or wakes.
  • Let an officiate or family member know your intentions. I avoid asking permission, lest I empower another to keep me from doing what I have determined I have a legal and moral right to do. However, I usually let them know why I am there, and find a place where I will not be in the way, yet still can make meaningful pictures. If an officiate asks that I not use flash, I grant them that small sense of control.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.