A Brief Overview of Funeral Photography

Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash
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In some cultures, the act of registering social events through photography doesn’t limit itself just to proms, engagements & weddings. And there is one particular genre that takes this practice of creating mementos of life a bit further. This is, which you have already guessed by the title of course, funeral photography.

Here, we’ll take a big overlook at this peculiar branch of photography in order to understand it a bit better. And despite not being a proper “how to” guide, it will provide some rather useful ideas for both thinking and dealing with what people might expect from the outcomes of it.

What is Funeral Photography?

We can briefly (and quite unfairly) define it as the act of documenting a funeral with the use of photographs. But how exactly does it differ from taking photographs from any other social gathering?

Usually, when photography approaches a social activity, it tends to go with the flow of the overall vibe during that moment in time. Particularly, these tend to be fun, joyful, and highly memorable. But funerals are something different, and of course, not all people will relate the desire for memories with them.

But actually, there are people that have had the need for these moments to be documented as well, and photography has the visual power to make them both memorable and tasteful. The main difference here is based upon the fact that it is one of the purest documentary approaches when it comes to social gatherings.

As time goes by, more people seem to be rather comfortable with the idea of death. It might be to religious, philosophical and even cultural aspects, but the fact is that it is slowly detaching from being a taboo. After all, death is the only certain thing of our existence, and remembering people with a serene attitude is the best way to honor their lives.

Of course, death isn’t always easy to deal with, especially for the people left behind. And there are also some particularly unexpected and tragic circumstances that make sorrow extremely unbearable. Therefore, not all funerals are adequate for them to be documented with photography.

What to Take into Account when Doing Funeral Photographs

Unless you live within specific cultures you might not be considering offering yourselves as “Funeral Professional Photographer”, but what if someone asks you to cover such an intimate family moment? Would you decline? Would you accept the request?

The fundamental idea here is to always keep in mind that this will be a highly documentary task, so don’t expect people to be willing to pose for your artistic and creative shots. Leave that for weddings and engagements sessions. Therefore, you must always behave in the most ethical way when doing the job.

For those asking us to document a funeral of their beloved one, it will be a very important and solemn thing. It is often that in some funerals, laughter sparks among the people accompanying the grieving family, but that doesn’t mean that the overall tone will be full of joy and jokes. Those scarce moments will be genuine reactions from the people, especially if they have had some stressful days prior to their beloveds passing away.

And don’t expect to find much inspiration on the Internet about how to photograph funerals. Therefore, taking things slowly and deducting their behavior will be your main conceptual tools. Also take into account that they won’t be expressing themselves in a rather natural way. Funerals make people feel a roller-coaster of emotions, and one needs to be patient about that.

And the main reason why you won’t find too much visual references to work with or to find inspiration, is because these sort of photographs happen to be the most meaningful images for a family. They are requested for them to have visual evidence of the departure of a loved family or friend, and they have no more value than to the people requesting them. Also, photographers don’t usually get permission to share these photographs as part of their portfolios, unless they depict nothing but details from the funeral.

And that takes me to the next important thing that one needs to consider when getting invited to document a funeral with a camera. Focusing on details and ambiances won’t be enough, you’ll have to figure out how to document the social particularities without being invasive, nor too creative. That, of course, is a huge photographic challenge, and only experience will make you get through it. Of course, inconspicuous cameras can help you, but there is an empathy element that gets involved. And trust me, it is hard to balance out between being empathic and professional neutral.

Blending in Will not be Enough

For documentary photographers, the act of blending in with properly dark clothes will be a logical “to-do”, but that isn’t sufficient. The best thing one can do when documenting a funeral, is to schedule one or two days in order to take things slowly.

In some cultures, mourning someone happens during one day, and the actual funeral takes place the day after that. If you happen to be called with enough time, maybe you could consider documenting this moment too. And if you want to get some clean and meaningful shots, wait until very few people are in the room. This usually happens in the late hours of the night, or the very first hours of the day. After that, things happen quite fast, and one needs to be prepared.

If possible, visit the place where the ceremony will take place. That way, you’ll be prepared for the light conditions there. As said before, things happen extremely fast during some funerals, and there is no time to be wasted on improvisations.

One of the most useful things one can do while documenting a funeral is to visit the church where the ceremony will take place, as well as the cemetery during the most crowded moments of the aforementioned mourning. That way, one is capable of making the most out of the venues and the light.

Also consider that not all funeral ceremonies are alike, and many of them have close relationships with religious traditions and beliefs. So make your homework and find out how funerals are expected to unfold if you feel that something is skipping your prior cultural knowledge.

If possible, ask the person contacting you about the most important moments they want to get registered as well as the closest attendants to be there. Some broad shots of the overall crowd are always useful too, especially because when the grief is on us, one can hardly remember what is going on around us.

And if you feel that this idea is useful, then try to always remember to avoid shooting moments that you yourself won’t be comfortable having being shot at you. Therefore, common sense will be your guide when documenting such a deep and moving moment.

The Ceremony

Some people might think that the moment of truth happens during the ceremony, but the real challenge happens when the coffin is being carried from the church, chapel, temple or equivalent, to the actual graveyard. That’s when things get extremely fast, chaotic and even confusing.

Try to always be distant, and if possible, work by yourselves, or at least with only one photographic partner. And the main reason is because even one person with a camera draws too much attention. There is no way to keep oneself stealthy during a funeral when taking photographs, so take this into account. Also, let the flash at your place.

Finding the sweet spot between aesthetic images and the sorrow is hard, so try focusing on the latter rather than being too creative. After getting some experience, one is capable of trying new things, and even anticipating certain moments, but be careful with taking things for granted.

The hardest moment when documenting a funeral is the precise minutes when the coffin is being pulled down into the ground. Unless you feel comfortable and well-received by all the attendees, try registering this with a good long lens. Otherwise, you will certainly be perceived as being rude.

After the burial, the gatherings turn to be less tense, and allow one to get a bit closer to the people accompanying the grieving family and friends. And don’t forget to take some photographs of the flowers, which are perceived in many cultures as a powerful symbol of the final goodbye.

Why is Funeral Photography so Meaningful?

Just like other photographic services that get requested, funerals are perceived by some people as the final milestone of their beloved ones. And if other chapters of their lives have been recorded, why the final one shouldn’t be? If you think about, it is almost like honoring those that have gotten ahead in the only certain thing about life.

Photographs allow people to perceive the presence of the absent ones, and having some visually objective memories of the bitter-sweet moments of the last goodbye, sometimes allow people to feel more calmed about farewelling their beloved ones.

Would You Photograph a Funeral?

This is an important question that one has to think deeply for a moment. If so, why are you willing to do it? Or if not, why won’t you? What makes you well-suited for bearing with such a huge responsibility? Or why do you think that you shouldn’t be done in the first place? All these questions are tough, and all the answers trigger more questions regarding our own perception of life and death.

And of course, they are not meant to be answered in a comment right away. They have been asked to make you think about the importance of photography, and most importantly, for you to reflect on how much responsibility you are taking in your hands when drawing your camera out. And if you have never been in this situation before, and feel like answering them right away, be careful about your own thoughts.

Would You Ask for a Funeral Photographic Service?

Now let’s turn the table a bit more. As a photographer, would you actually be willing to pay for a photographic service to document the funeral of a close relative or friend? If not, then you already have your answer for the questions raised above.

And if the answer is yes, then ask this now: what would you expect from the person to be hired? And I’m talking about both the behavior during the moments of grief, and the visual results he or she delivers. And since there are very little visual references and ideas for funeral photography, then these self-triggered answers will give you a clear idea about the minimum requirements or expectations that one should fulfill.

It is easier to fulfill with expectations when clients ask for specific shots or results, but in the case that there are no clear instructions or requirements, the general documentary approach will be the best strategy to go with. Try to capture everything that you think is important, and then edit the images in accordance to the story that you would be wishing to tell.

Side note on the word editing: Some other day I’ll give a proper explanation about the difference between editing and post-processing. But for now, let’s just say that editing here refers to the task of selecting the images that you will develop.

Conclusion

Despite being such an edgy topic, funeral photographic requests have slowly gained more interest among people worldwide. Same which might be a social indicator that more people are getting more comfortable with the idea of death. If you are a photographer, and you are asked to document a funeral some day, please think of your answer wisely.

Giving your back to such a noble request could hurt the feelings of the people already in sorrow and grief. And if you decide to take the responsibility of doing it, take into account that it won’t be easy at all. Said that, no answer is easy. And that is a very good example of how having a camera in our hands, is to bear with a huge social responsibility in the first place.

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