Photographing a Funeral

Discussion in 'Wedding and Event' started by chimera_h, Apr 22, 2009.

  1. I have been asked to take photographs at a funeral this Friday. It is for an acquaintance of mine who's 16 yr old daughter was killed in a tragic car accident.
    The parents will be in such a fog that they won't rememer all the details, but I'm told they want photographs of the day. Not posed, of course. I have been asked to arrive before the event to take pictures of the room where the service will take place. They want pics of the flowers, etc. They do not want photographs during the service or at the graveside, but at the reception following.
    My plan is to be as invisible as possible. I have no intention of photographing the family. What I'm not sure of is if they really want pictures (even ones of far away) of mourners. Or, should I do wide angle shots of the entire scene?
    I want to be as respectful as possible, while hopefully giving them what they want.
    Has anyone here every photographed a funeral?
  2. I've done a wake and a scattering of the ashes. There were no restrictions put on me as it seems you have but none the less, both I found really quite difficult.
    I photographed most things (with the exception of the deceased - it was a closed casket) and explained to the family what I had available and let the individual persons involved decide what they wanted to see (or not).
    I took both wide angle shots and close in (using a longer lens, 200mm). I did try to emphasize the happier (if there can be) moments and let the camera sit idle at those very emotional scenes that only the person and the universe need witness. I cannot tell you when these moments will will know.
    The reception was a good place to photograph the family and friends. Weddings and funerals (unfortunately) are the main times when far flung families get together. There will be many photos asked for at that time with "Uncle Ernie and the family" and I found that wasn't too bad. Not so different from wedding receptions. At the reception after the scattering of the ashes I set up a "portrait station" in an area of the hall that was dedicated to a display of the persons life. It worked well. I must have done a hundred or more shot there.
    Immediately after the event a few did not want to see any of it but a few weeks later I got emails from the same persons asking if I still had the photos available. So, even though at the time I felt uncomfortable taking some of the shots, in the end was glad I did and so were they. Sometimes people just need a little time to let things settle.
    The one thing I did was let them know that if anyone wanted copies I would keep the photos for a limited time (one month) and then delete them all. Don't ask me why, I'm not really sure myself. It just felt like something I had to do for me if for no-one else. Maybe out of respect...
    I don't know if anything here helps. I do feel for you as knowing the family along with the death of such a young person makes it extra difficult.
  3. I have the unfortunate rep of being a funeral photographer in my community. Oddly enough it started out as an accident. Attended a friend dad's funeral and happen to have my point and shoot. They wanted pics of family members who came from out of town and it just took off from there.
    First off, I DONT SHOOT THE DECEASED in the casket. I shoot a funeral like I would shoot a wedding and it also depends on the type of funeral. I shoot mainly asian funerals and there is a lot of tradition involve. I would compare those and the emotions that comes with it. But not to go overboard. You don't want to capture somone who is balling their heart out. I would also capture guests and family members.
  4. I've only shot one so don't have too much to add, but for what it's worth - I turned up to pay my respects and was asked if I had my camera with me. The family wanted a record of the people attending for the reasons outlined above. I only had a point and shoot in the car and took a few wide angle photos of the ceremony from both the front and rear. It felt a little awkward but they were very pleased with the photos. This was for a friend rather than a commercial thing - I'd rather not get a reputation for funeral photgraphy, although, I think there could be a market for it.
  5. What Scott said. Last weekend I ended up being one of the photographers for my cousin's funeral. It was very tough, as he was a young man in his mid-20s who died in a tragic car accident. I went mostly for wider angle shots and occasionally zoomed in on some key figures, but never very up-close as I would in a wedding. And NEVER took shots of the deceased. I actually decided quite some time ago that I would not ever view a dead body again. That is *not* the last image I would want emblazoned in my mind of someone.
  6. I don't think I would be able to do a good job doing something like that. Not because I'd be grossed out or something but because I'd be too busy wanting to get the photojournalistic side of things, capturing peoples emotions, most likely the ones they wouldn't want to remember. We're all about emotion and feelings in photographs and scenes, what's going on... either way though.. that's gotta be a tough gig.
  7. Odd as it may seem, my sister wanted a photo of her fiance in the coffin - so don't assume it's off limits - the family should be asked about what they specifically want as it seems they have with you...
    One thing my aunt was pleased about was that she had a record of the great numbers of people that were there to support her. It was a blur to her but later it gave her comfort to see the pictures of all the people that were there.
  8. I've photographed three funerals, two for my own family members. Nobody complained or even noticed, tho' in one instance I did check with a few other family members to be sure they were okay with it. At my brother's funeral I couldn't bring myself to photograph the casket, but I did at my grandmother's. I also photographed people grieving. Again, nobody seemed to notice.
    I work very discretely during the funeral services and at the funeral home, with a small rangefinder with shutter sounds comparable to clicking a ballpoint pen (Canonet, Olympus 35RC, Olympus XA2). A compact P&S digital camera with the flash and beeping sounds turned off will make virtually no noise, so it's a far better choice for this type of situation than any SLR.
    While not everyone will understand, those who do will treasure these mementos. There's nothing unusual or distasteful about it. Just a few generations ago there was a fad of posing the deceased for lifelike photos, or going to extraordinary lengths to make the bodies more photogenic. Personally, that wouldn't suit my own aesthetics, but neither would it offend me if that's what someone wanted to do.
  9. I've photographed a fair few funerals over the years since I moved to Finland. They are not always the easiest things to photograph. Usualy photos are wanted of the coffin and as people place flowers on the coffin. The service is usualy photographed here. The coffin will be photographed with all the flowers on it as well. I have only photographed one reception though and I shot candid table photos, shots of people standing around chatting and tried to be very discrete. I usually arrive early and get some shots as people arrive before they go inside and sit down.
  10. I've been honored to photograph two funerals in the last year. The rare occasions, for many families, to get together in life seem to be a wedding and a funeral. (My truth, prior to these experiences, was to avoid funerals and looking at a person in a casket at any cost. I did not enjoy the process in the least. )
    First, I'd recommend talking with the primaries in the family and find out how they want it photographed. Let them know they have Choices! The choices seem to be: full out fly-on-the-wall photojournalism and restricted places and locations: sound familiar? The other choice is to Celebrate a Life Well Lived and let the photographer record the story of the day as an involved participant instead of a cool and out of touch vendor.
    The reason I suggest talking to the primaries first to decide your approach is this: if the primaries show that they are comfortable with the photographer and what is photographed then all the rest of the guests will fall in line (to some degree or the other) and they will relax a great deal. (Just like a wedding which is why I like to go to rehearsals ... it gets all the primaries used to the camera and photographer.)
    The family that decides to Celebrate a Life Well Lived ... puts nothing out of bounds and wants a photojournalistic approach from beginning to the very end. The decision before hand to treat the day in this manner truly can help set the tone for a day of celebration.
    My observation: the family, of course, was there early and we took photojournalistic shots which included the deceased in casket and some without. It was no big deal. Then, when guests started to arrive there was the expected looks of surprise on several faces quickly followed by relaxed faces and smiles after the family members set the tone by making it an upbeat celebration amid the sorrow. It was really fascinating. Even the children relaxed. People didn't speak in hushed and quiet tones all the time. There were tears as well as laughter. Great photojournalistic moments.
    To be honest: I arrived dreading the somber vision in my head even though I knew intellectually that I had permission to do my thing. Within 5 minutes I gave up on the weird attempts to be "respectful" (I'll sure get in trouble for that one, oh well) and went about doing the thing I enjoy doing: telling the story of the day. To my surprise the camera's presence did exactly the same thing it does at a good wedding! People eventually relaxed and it was a great day. Side Note: To top the day off: the person being laid to rest was a former soldier and to the families' surprise the military sent a unit to greet everyone at the burial site with flags and swords and trumpets. There was a formal folding of the flag and the handing it over to the family and tears abounding as well as smiles.
    I was so honored to be a part of the day: I can't tell you how it's affected me.
    The other funeral was the same way ... I was given full permission to do as I pleased and it was simply a lovely day by all.
    What did I do? Well, I wandered quickly and quietly around the room(s) and other "venue" locations and took photos of family and children as they talked and greeted each other. I did not skulk about the edges but walked around and met people and took photos. It was rather easy to do once I decided that all I was doing was recording the day as it unfolded and I think that's the key to it. The family has to give you permission to do what you do ... you're a photographic storyteller. Ask them if they want the story of the day to be told ... if they say yes then do it. Encourage groups of people to "group up" and take a quick photo; some of the photos can have an out of focus (use that wide aperture, lol) casket in the background: no harm: it's reality. Heck, some family called me up front and lined up in front of the deceased on both sides and requested a "family" portrait! The camera can actually be a great way of decompressing the emotion.
    Of course: there will be families that don't want this style of photography but if they don't have permission to do it this way or realize that it's ok to Celebrate a Life Well Lived then they will need your services to capture a more "respectful" and somber event. That's perfect too. Just give them the option to know that there's a trend out there in the passing hippie generation that wants to feel good and smile amid the tears. That's ok too.
  11. I was asked by a family member to take some photos at my mother-in-law's funeral, including a picture or two of her. Our "Granny" was 98 when she died and had been bedridden for several years. I had never done this before. It happened to be a beautiful late fall day just past Thanksgiving with light streaming in through the church windows. I took some of the empty church (which was newly decorated for Christmas) The Hearse arriving and the pallbearers taking her casket into the church. A few closed casket and then a couple of open ones, one from far back in the sanctuary and one closer. In death she had a peaceful look that had been missing during her last few years alive. It wasn't as bad as I thought. I also got the flowers and the casket spray. No one posed with her body, but I have seen family groups like that in my photo lab. I did get a shot of her youngest daughter with the casket roses outside. None during the service, but a couple in the cemetery of the bagpiper and mourners. Then afterwards the family at the gravesite after the burial. One neice told me at the time she never wanted to see them. But later she saw her mother's set and was releived and struck by the peaceful beauty of them and asked for several.
    If it helps the family, then I would do it, gently and with pride to be taking a part in the healing. Best regards.
  12. Camera as part of the healing process ... exactly. Good observation Tammy.
  13. I grew up with my closest relatives working in and owning funeral homes, and worked in them myself for few years in the eighties. I think William and Tamara and the others have it exactly right. And, although there is always sadness, sometimes terrible sadness, families can also be in very good spirits. Sometimes their relatives and friends, people they grew up with and haven't seen in years, are there. I've never been to a real Irish wake, but a few have been close.
    Life Appreciation services have been popular for years, and now there are people you can hire to make a video to be shown at the funeral, made from photos and video you give them. So, why not a photographer. Video from funerals here in Los Angeles has been going home to India and the Philippines since VHS camcorders arrived.
    If it's a somber occasion, and it feels too uncomfortable to focus those attending, you can photograph the pageantry, which is sometimes not unlike a wedding in some ways. There may be lot's of stuff that would look good even if you were limited to a long lens-- the procession led by motor officers, flower pieces and those placed on the casket, pall bearers lined up. Almost any time the casket is moved, there's a lot of choreography. There may be volunteer or military color guards for veterans.
  14. Wow. Thanks everyone for your feedback. I'm thinking they are going to do their best to make it a celebration, but I just don't know if that will happen. It's a short life. There will be tons of teenagers there..I'm thinking 200 plus, people.
    Anyway, I know they want the details for sure. I was hoping they'd want graveside pics, but they don't. I'm wondering if I can use my 200mm and try some (without them noticing) just in case they want them later.
    The one thing I'm concerned about is that people, who don't know the parents have asked me to take pictures, will be upset if I'm there. I can explain, however, that will be after they've said something rude. Should I wear some wort of badge or lanyard to look a little more official?
    My plan was to not photograph the family at all. I'm thinking I'll just get the other guests and leave the family alone. Don't you agree?
    Thanks again. This is taking place tomorrow a.m. I'll check back for responses before I go.
  15. Chimera, I'm not sure it's possible to coach anyone on such short notice. But in my experience photographing people in difficult circumstances the most important factor above all is a sense of compassion. It doesn't mean I don't do what I'm there to do just because it might make someone uncomfortable. That's not compassion. That's guilt, discomfort or lack of clarity of vision and purpose.
    What you feel inside will show outside. If you feel uncomfortable, guilty or ashamed of what you are doing others will pick up on it and respond negatively. If you feel genuine compassion for those around you and a connection with the moment, others will perceive this and will respond positively.
    But other than merely feeling a certain way, a few conscious, deliberate physical techniques help. Move smoothly, gracefully, drawing as little attention to yourself as possible. Don't slink, crouch, prowl or lurk. You're simply moving around the room as if it is your own. Make eye contact. Don't stare but don't avert your eyes when others look your way. Make eye contact, and nod almost imperceptibly. Allow your face to smile even if your mouth doesn't form that specific shape. The facial muscles and eyes will convey the same message even if you don't smile broadly, and most people will perceive this unconsciously. Be wary of clenching your jaw - it's a common reflex under tension or pressure and conveys a sense of alarm to some sensitive people. Chew gum before the event to relax your jaws, but spit it out before the event.
    You're there because you've been invited. You belong, as a recorder of an important moment. Believe it, feel it, and others will pick up on it.
  16. ~Lex is so correct on how to move about ... the "quiet smile" and compassionate eyes become real and "of the moment".
    ~Chimera, If I read your last comment correctly: are you saying the family who is holding the funeral don't know you're going to shoot at the funeral with professional gear?
    If the direct family do not want photos taken at the burial location then don't use a long lens to take any photos; I'd suggest you do nothing there unless they give approval. Without direct family approval you risk creating negative emotion ... if you get approval then it's a good thing.
    I just re-read your first post: if you don't have direct family approval through "the acquaintance" then I'd not be taking a camera at all. I found that families love having photos of the flowers with really tight shots of the cards so they can remember who sent what flowers/gifts which helps them in writing thank you notes. This way they don't have to be bothered writing it all down; it's just easier to record these things with a camera and it serves a "real" purpose. Can you ask "the acquaintance" to get permission for that chore and also ask if they would like some photos of the guests at the same time? I really think that going there loaded with all the good intent could backfire on you if the direct family is not involved in a well intentioned "acquaintance".
    A funeral is not a place to "beg for forgiveness" ... which can be a good strategy at other venues but, in this case, it could backfire big time. This situation can be loaded with Emotion and you don't want to be the recipient.
    Well, at least that's something to think about ... I hope the direct family are approached and give you permission to help out with a bit of photography as a Gift to the Family ... just be sure the family has given permission. Imo.
  17. The family asked for me, via my friend, to take pictures. The mother of the deceased knows me. They were specific in wanting pictures of details before the service and pictures of people at the reception. That's what I did. I did attend the graveside (they didn't even see me) and took pictures of the guests, flowers and casket only.
    People were gracious and appreciative. I captured pics of people embracing, laughing and sitting still in thought. I took pics for 6 hrs.
    The two pictures I never (and would never) took were the most touching: One, was when the mom and dad arrived early to view the casket. It was heart-wrenching. The other was following the graveside service when the mom & dad walked down the lane of the cemetery, alone, holding hands.
    Thanks for your advice and support.
  18. I tell you guys what was tough, I had to shoot my own grandmother's funeral.
  19. Scott ... may I ask: did you find it at all to be a positive experience for you and/or for the family?
    Merely trying to get honest feedback from those who have done this so that I can get a better feel for the process. Thanks ... if you don't feel like commenting then I understand completely.
  20. It actually was a positive a experience. It was an asian funeral and there was a lot of tradition. There was a lot of family members who could not attend the funeral but being able to see ceremony and the emotions was like being there.
  21. So good to hear that family that couldn't attend found your photos to be a good thing!
    Thanks for responding Scott; good to get confirmation that photography at funerals is being a positive for families.
  22. I photograph funerals in Sydney Australia (my website is www.the I think funeral photography is the final frontier in photography; everything else has been done to death (excuse the pun). Funerals are probably the only time when people let down their guard and reveal their humanity so funeral photography is definitely worth pursuing.
    To photograph funerals successfully, your camera gear is important. You must use equipment which can work without a flash as it is a cardinal sin to distract people grieving in a church - this means you must be able to comfortably shoot at 3200 ASA, f3.3, 1/250th sec. I use a Nikon D700. You need a zoom reaching up to 200mm so you can cover the speakers whilst remaining at the back of the church. The zoom must be able to open up wide ie f2.8 ie I use a Nikor 70 - 200mm f2.8 which is terrific. For family groups outside i use a Nikon D300 with a 17-55mm lens which covers all my needs.
  23. I am starting my photography business which includes funeral photography. While there is another photographer in town, she specializes in portraits and wedding photography while I will specialize not only funeral photography, but special events photography as well.
    I do have specific guidelines that I have set up for myself and one of the examples is to have a spokesperson from the family. This will prevent any confusion in what the family wants and what I will be shooting. However, the family MUST request the open casket photos, otherwise the casket must remain closed at all times. I will be doing candid photos of people and family members and try to capture the happiest moments of the person's life rather than the saddest moments.

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