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Photography and Spiritual Formation (11): Death and Dying

Warning: This post talks about death and dying which some may find disturbing.

A lot of photography is about life and living. We take photographs of births and birthdays, weddings and graduations, family gatherings, the natural world around us, and interesting parts of the built environment and those who live within it. Not so with death and dying. It feels uncomfortable, even disrespectful, to photograph people who are sick or dying, those who are dead, and at funerals. I’ve been pondering the idea that to live life well you must also think deeply about death.

Personally, I wished there were more photographs from my father’s and father-in-law’s funerals – of those there, the conversations they were having, and the overall atmosphere of each event. Being caught up in doing things and grieving I didn’t pay much attention to those things and would like to look back on those now with photographs of those times.

This post is shaped by an email from Feature Shoot that arrived in the last couple of weeks and which highlighted several photographers whose work involves walking alongside those who are dying and recording what happens after death. This is different from the photographers who work in war zones or disasters such as famine or flood. While there is a personal element to some of those photos, often it is the scale of death and dying that is recorded. The links below capture something of the intimate and personal as boundaries around life and death are crossed (or even, transgressed, for good reasons).

In the first post in this series (Photography and Spiritual Formation (1): Beginnings), I mentioned the late Andrew Norton and his influence on my thinking about photography and spirituality. In writing on his own experience of photography he says:

A photo is simply a capture of time that now no longer exists. It’s gone! You can capture it in memory or in digital form but it is no longer present,  it is now in another form, re-present. It represents another time and place in the present. A photo then is not so much about the photo-graph but about the story of the photographer and the viewer  as present to the scene that is before them.

The most important question in photography then, is not about the graphic but the experience past , present and future of the one who is viewing.

In his book, Turn to Wonder, Norton talks of the “grace of dying” which he describes as:

There is a returning, a homecoming, a movement from the unknown to the known, incomplete to complete, fragmented to whole. This returning is what I call the grace of dying.

Turn to wonder

You can find Norton’s book at the link below which can be downloaded for free.

In that book, he has the poem Ask me which talks of the available light in a day, which links nicely to Kelvin Wright’s blog on spirituality and photography with the same name: Available Light (

Ask me
Ask me,
one day in the available light,
“What lies ahead?”
We’ll go for a walk.
We’ll follow the ridge line track
there and back.
We’ll drink with our eyes.
We’ll speak with our hearts.
We’ll delight in the clouds.
And I’ll ask you,
“What lies within?”
We’ll listen in silence
for the echoe’s return.
That is what lies ahead.

Andrew norton, “Ask me”, Turn to Wonder

Feature Shoot – Confronting Death: 5 Photographers Break the Taboo

Five different photographers exploring death and dying in different contexts. These are confronting, challenging, and sometimes reassuring pieces that connect with the reality of death in the midst of life and how we negotiate that for better or worse. (You may need to supply your email address to read these)

Schels and his partner Beat Lakotta began approaching potential individuals at hospices in Berlin and Hamburg, surprised to find few people said no. The pair were on constant alert, at times running out in the middle of the night to shoot before the undertaker would come. Though emotionally draining, Schels recognized that the series became an important epitaph to people before they actually died. With family and friends unable to cope with the looming truth, terminally ill patients often feel completely isolated.

Powerful Portraits of Individuals Before and Directly After Their Death – Walter Schels

Schumann carried out his civil service at St. Frances, but years after his the mandatory work ended, he felt himself pulled once more to the hospice and its residents. With help from his contacts within the staff, he distributed previous images from his portfolio and invited individuals to participate. Everyone he photographed was lucid and well enough to make an informed decision, and although some immediately responded “yes” or “no,” many took days to mull it over before agreeing.

Each person’s motivations were different; some appreciated the company, while others like Mrs. H found that the portraits helped to express to family members the emotional ups and and downs that come with living in hospice care. Most understood that soon they would die, and like Wolfgang Petersmann, were grateful for the opportunity to show the world just what that meant.

Powerful Portraits of Life (and Death) in Hospice Care –  Daniel Schumann 

How to Photography Death – by Eric Kim

In the form of a more personal letter or memoir, Korean photographer Eric Kim, reflects on the need to photograph both the living and the dead. He says:

Photograph your loved ones like they’re going to die, and photograph your dead ones like they’re still alive.

How to Photography Death – by Eric Kim

Kim, a Roman Catholic, marries his Christian faith with Korean culture and photography to create something deeply personal. He writes:

The gist of this letter is that I want to share my personal experiences photographing my grandfather’s funeral, photographing his graveyard two years later, and thoughts on photographing death in general.

How to Photography Death – by Eric Kim

Post-mortem photography

On the subject of photographing the dead, the following talk about the development of post-mortem photography as a genre:

Other articles

And a few other articles on photography, death and dying.