A photographic friend of mine died recently. It was unexpected in a way that these things sometimes can be. He lived in another country and whilst I desperately wanted to attend his funeral, it was not possible.
What did happen was a series of photographs started to appear in that thing called social media. Firstly, a shot of him working amongst photographers taken last year. It was what he did best, imparting knowledge to others, and there he was doing it in a well-recorded photograph.
Then I heard that a magnificent portrait of him was on display at the funeral, taken by another talented mutual friend. This was a portrait that he had not seen, but now we all have because of its importance on that day. Her photographic portrait created discussion amongst his friends, the mourners. Almost immediately, social media started to fill with images taken at the ceremony. Photographs that took me to a place I could not attend, to recognise that he was indeed amongst friends at the end. All of his friends that I recognised were photographic acquaintances shared, because I did not know his immediate family. Amongst the photographic tributes was a portfolio of shots taken on the day by one of his close friends who had earlier delivered a touching eulogy. But the portfolio of black and white photographs spoke in emotional words that I fully understood despite my physical absence.
There was a poignant photograph of a young female mourner kneeling beside the coffin whilst singing Amazing Grace. I was affected as if I had been there in person.
There was the photograph of a musician friend playing a last solo. There were the young girls from the endangered Pacific island that he had championed for so long doing a graceful dance in front of the mourners. He had published such photographs in books as part of his academic research, and at the end it was part of his final story. And finally we see that it was a grey, wet, cloudy day. A day fit for a funeral. We know these things because a photographer shared his monochromatic documentation of an event I could not attend.
The story is this, photographs can bring tears to our eyes, can convey a message, explain an event or just quietly tell it precisely how it was. Whilst some of what I write about today is a documentation of events, there is also another thought at play here. Are we as photographers doing enough to document and record portraits of those who are important to us? We are photographers – it is what we do best, and surely the onus is upon us to go out and take significant photographs of people important to us and to our profession? It can be part of our commercial practice or it can be part of what we do to repay our own community, and to society as a whole, with that special skill that we possess. Let’s pay it forward, knowing that one day these portraits will be important, valued, treasured. Who are you photographing tomorrow, and why?
This essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOS, p144, issue 43, May 2015.