When people lose all of their possessions in a fire or flood, it is said that what they end up missing most are their family photos – the records and reminders of precious memories.
As an undertaker, I know that nearly every family I serve takes photos at funerals, sometimes of the deceased, sometimes at the graveside. Often at the reception or lunch, I end up taking group photos so everyone can get in the picture.
A funeral is, among other things, an important gathering of family and friends unequalled by anything other than a wedding. As weddings often include the work of professional photographers to catch all of the important moments, why not at funerals as well?
Often at funerals there is no one taking photos during the really moving moments of the procession, visitation, and candid photos of the emotions and interactions because the principals are all involved in these activities.
In this post, I am pleased to share the work of Priscilla Etienne, Photographer and Managing Director of Funeography.
Patrick McNally: Your work clearly shows just how valuable having funeral photos can be for a family. If I were them, I certainly would be grateful to have these shots. What brought you to funeral photography?
Priscilla Etienne: My parents both died in1996 within 8 months of each other. At my mother’s funeral, when I realised the usual taking of pictures wasn’t going to happen I was very disappointed and knew this was something I would regret. It is common in the Caribbean and African culture. There was only one chance to capture some of the wonderful, heartfelt things that happened on the day and sadly it was lost forever.
PM: In your work, what have you found to be the best times and situations for photos?
PE: When people become focused and immersed in what’s going on and start to reveal their true emotions.
PM: At a wedding, many of the shots are staged, and when candid, the group usually expects to see the flashbulbs popping. At a funeral, expectations may be different. Is it difficult to get some of the shots you want without distracting from the proceedings?
PE: No it isn’t because the success with beautifully captured shots lies behind the planning. I go to the church and the wake venues before the funeral therefore I am advised of the best places to work from which compliment my discretion. The funeography team works in exactly the same manner.
PM: I imagine that some of the photo opportunities are emotionally difficult ones. How do you address this as a photographer and as a person?
PE: As a photographer I seize the moment, whatever the emotion, but I do it quickly and discreetly as possible. Most of the time people are unaware they have been captured. As a person, I go with my emotions because if I feel it, I can portray it.
PM: What are some of the ways people keep and display photos from funerals? Is there a difference in the way they treat these images?
PE: The finished product is a hardback funeography book. When I am asked to photograph the deceased I give the option of giving the client one A4 image in a separate folder if they do not want it included in the book. Not only are the images protected better this way; they can be stored on a bookshelf. Easily accessible and practical, they also travel well if they are being sent abroad.
PM: What is the most valuable thing you have learned about life and death in your work?
PE: Make sure that when your life is ended you have had an impact on everyone who knew and cared about you. This reflects on how many come to say their final goodbyes.
PM: Do you think that art has an important role to play in dealing with death and moving forward after it?
PE: Yes I do, art is a very powerful platform. Good art does not need an explanation; the work speaks for itself and allows the viewer to make many interpretations. To see extremely important, life-changing images can also be an invaluable tool to help with the grieving process.
PM: Thank you very much for sharing your work and your thoughts with us.