In Times of Great Sadness

Of all the images I have taken I can say, without any hesitation, that no other photographic experience has come anywhere as close this for being such a raw emotional experience. This is one of my proudest images because I feel that it captures the essence of that being experienced at the time of its taking. It captures not only the sadness, tension and emotion of those being photographed but reminds me the inner feelings I was experiencing. The direct  gaze of the boy standing proud in the centre of the image, the son of the deceased, focuses on me and in so doing returns the directness of the lens upon him.

The son of a very good friend had died unexpectedly. As well as being good mates both she and her husband also happen to be superb photographers, reflected in the fact that they are each Fellows of the Royal Photographic Society.

The phone had rung prior to the date of the funeral and a question had been posed. “I have a favour to ask but please say no if you don’t want to do it. I would like someone to photograph the funeral. Would you do it for me?” she said . I replied “Yes, of course” without hesitation. My biggest photographic passion is people photography. More importantly I felt extremely honoured that a person of such renowned photographic standing and personal excellence in the genre of portraiture should ask me, especially because she knows so many other excellent photographers and might have asked one of them instead.

At the time I thought, I have done quite a few weddings, events, corporate shoots and the like, one of which included our ex Prime Minster, Lady Margaret Thatcher. A funeral must be similar. I was wrong on this point. The day commenced with me photographing the coffin, upon which had been laid the hat and banjo of the deceased, which had been placed on the back of an open funeral cart. I photographed it waiting patiently, as the funeral directors staff stood solemnly at the front and rear and then progressively as the funeral cortege of well over 100 mourners made its way up the small coast road to the village. Church. Here a lot more people were awaiting its arrival and I was amazed at the turn-out.

Inside the church was packed to maximum capacity with people standing in the aisles whilst others, unable to gain entry, waited patiently outside during the whole service. Here was obviously a man who was not only known to a great many but who was also clearly liked and was going to be very sadly missed by a lot of people. The vicar, who knew the deceased, began by welcoming those present. He mentioned that I was there with permission and at the request of the family to take photographs but that everyone else was to refrain from doing so, even with smart-phones.

The service itself was not a conventional one. No hymns but rather a story of celebration for the deceased life. Various people who knew him were invited to address those gathered where they told of things he had done and the type of person he was. Interspersed with this were introduced three separate groups of musicians, all who had known and performed with him. They played and sang a variety of very moving songs. There was one which I had not heard previously called “The Lowlands” which really tugged at my heart-strings. To say that the whole service was an emotional roller-coaster would be an understatement. There was laughter one moment, for instance when an old school friend recounted a day when two lads were having an argument and about to fight each other. We were told that the deceased went up to them and threatened to wipe the banana skin he was holding in their faces if they didn’t calm down. We heard that this had the desired effect and the resultant laughter completely defused the situation. On hearing this little tale all present in the church erupted in laughter and other similar funny stories . Mixed with this were other moments when we heard of stories which gave rise to intense feelings of sadness and sorrow. All this served to provide a small and somewhat intimate glimpse into the life and unique make-up of the person who was no longer with us.

For the most part, I was witnessing all this through the viewfinder of my camera. I had never met the man who was now lying in his coffin before us but I felt personally drawn deeper and deeper into his loss and the suffering of all those around me. Maybe it was because I could feel the hurt of the family, especially his mother because of our friendship. Possibly it was due to the photographic intensity with which I was trying to capture all that about me. All I know is that I was frequently shooting through tears, with a passion and feeling I cannot describe or was expecting. What I can say is that I was proud and honoured by the privilege given to me.

After the shoot I gave every single RAW file to my photographic friend safe in the knowledge that she had the skill to carry out the necessary post production process to those images which she wanted to keep and use in the book she was intent on producing for herself and her two grandchildren.

Some months later I was reviewing the images and came upon the one shown above. I was immediately taken by its strong pictorial narrative and it rekindled the experience I have described above. Even though I was told at the outset that any photographs I took were mine to use in any way I wished, I nevertheless sort specific permission not only from my friend but also, through her, other immediate members of the family to use it in competition and exhibition before doing so. As I have said, it is an image which fills me with pride.