Meditations on Photographing the Death of a Loved One

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All images are copyrighted Jason Reed, and are being used with permission.

The dead often live on in memories and photographs from when they were alive. We retell stories and look at old images as a way to revive them, if only for the moment until the next time we need their company. Yet, what about when someone close to you dies? Do you take pictures then? It’s a hard question to answer, and it’s even harder to do.

Recently, I came across a set of images titled “Dad” by the English photographer Jason Reed. When he got the call that his father, Leslie Reed, had died, he drove to his father’s home, and after spending some time by his side, he took pictures as a way to “make sense of what had happened.” The images are deeply meditative depictions of his father through what he surrounded himself with: framed images of loved ones, old loafers, his home. They offer fleeting glimpses into his life and also his death. I spoke with Jason recently about the significance of this undertaking, what the images mean to him, and more.

Editor’s Note: Some of these images show death, and may be upsetting to some viewers.

Phoblographer: Can you paint the scene for me? Where were you when you got the call? julius motal the phoblographer jason reed father image2

Jason: I had just got home that afternoon and had been shopping for equipment for school. I was due to begin teaching in a new school the following day and was a little stressed about that. It was just as I walked through the door, laden with bags, that my phone rang. I remember the time clearly – it was 3:01.

Phoblographer: How soon after getting the call did you go to where he was living?

Jason: The call was from his live in carer who told me that he had not woken up from his afternoon nap. My father was 93 and his health had been deteriorating for a few years, so the moment I heard this I just knew what had happened. A gradual nausea spread and, as soon as I told the carer to call an ambulance and then informed my partner about what had happened, I set off on the drive to London. I live about an hours drive away from his flat and that was a very unpleasant hour indeed – during which I had a call confirming my fears and a few others relating to coroners and the police. He had died at home and in those circumstances the police are usually required to attend to make sure nothing untoward had happened.

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Phoblographer: Where in the course of dealing with this information did you think to take your camera, and how soon after arriving did you start taking pictures?

Jason: I didn’t even think about that at the time. I simply picked up my bag when I left the house for the drive to town. I always carried my bag with me wherever I went and that bag always had my camera in it. Back then I didn’t have a dedicated camera bag – just a messenger style shoulder bag with an assortment of odds and ends in it that I generally take with me when wandering about (notebook, iPad etc etc).

It was when I had to write down some information from the ambulance crew and reached into the bag that I first realised the camera was with me. That was about 30 minutes after my arrival. The impulse to use it was again somewhat reflexive in that it felt like a natural thing to do. I have often wondered about whether I should have recorded the details of that afternoon and, of course, I have agonised about whether taking pictures of my father’s body and surroundings and making them public on my site is in a violation of his privacy and dignity. I still do worry about that. In terms of a response to the images being on my site, the only feedback I have had has been very positive and encouraging.

I still worry about it though. I suppose most photographers who make images of a personal nature must feel the same way. I hope I’ve done the right thing.

Phoblographer: What guided your eye when you were taking those pictures? What made you julius motal the phoblographer jason reed father image3press the shutter?

Jason: All that kept occurring to me was to try and make the record as close to my perception of the actual event as I could. I remember thinking that this was potentially the most important thing I would ever photograph but I also felt somewhat liberated by the slight confusion that I felt and that slightly grief- dazed sensation seemed to cut off any of my normal instincts regarding form and content. I was allowed some time alone in the flat by the versions people there and just wandered rather aimlessly between rooms. Pausing from time to time to look at his home and the things in it which previously I had not really “looked” at in the context of his life. I had just taken these simple things for granted. Of course I spent a lot of time with him before the coroner arrived to take his body away. The odd thing was the sense of his no longer being there. Only the belongings that surrounded and defined him; pictures, memories, slippers, walking frames. Strangely these seemed to be more “of” him than his actual body. A very unnerving feeling.

I should add that the only film I had rolling around my bag was a roll of TriX and a roll of expired Sensia. Neither of which I ever really use. They just happened to be in the bottom of my bag and had been there for many months.

Phoblographer: Did you finish both rolls?

Jason: I think I did. But I honestly don’t remember how. The whole process seemed to be over very quickly and I don’t recall pressing the shutter 70+ times. I began shooting after sitting with him for a while and holding his hand. The medics hadn’t stepped out for that long to allow me some privacy so I really can’t account for how I actually exposed so many frames.

Phoblographer: How long did you have these images before you decided to put them online, and what was the impetus behind that decision?

Jason: Oh I had them for weeks and weeks before I even had them processed. I actually felt rather ghoulish for even having them and so let them lie in the rolls. Once all the arrangements for funerals and the legal technicalities had been settled, I felt equipped to have them processed. That was, as you can imagine, difficult. They then sat on my hard drive for a long time before I made the decision to upload them to my site. As I mentioned before that was something that I didn’t take lightly. It’s hard to articulate the reasons why. I like to think that my photography is beginning to form a record of my own life as much as it is of life around me. My father’s passing is one of the seminal moments of my life – as was my mothers death and my daughter’s birth. Had I been as involved in my photography then as I am now, I believe that I would probably have photographed those events as well. Given that my website (hopefully) shows the best of my photography, I felt it was appropriate to include those images of my father. They reflect not only a brief period of time during which I was trying to come to terms with what had happened but also show something of him, possibly even me. My photography tends to be detached in many ways and so this was a massive departure on every conceivable level.

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Phoblographer: What was it like seeing those images for the first time?

Jason: Unpleasant and deeply poignant. What was most upsetting was seeing the little things that he surrounded himself with – especially the many photographs of my mother, myself and my daughter. The thought of his being surrounded by those memories makes me very sad to this day. Although they must have brought him happiness, it never ceases to remind me of how brief life is and how I have yet to fully grasp how important it is to stay close to those you love. As with all those who have lost loved ones, never a day goes past that I don’t wish I spent more time with him. The images of the pictures around him twist that knife a little every time I look at them.

Phoblographer: Why did seeing those pictures around him upset you so?

Jason: I hate the thought of him looking at them and wishing that I/my mother/his granddaughter were actually there with him. There something deeply sad about that sort of longing. However my father was an infinitely more positive person than I am and I suspect my sadness is more projection than the reality.

Phoblographer: What kind of a man was he? What was your relationship with him?julius motal the phoblographer jason reed father image7

Jason:He was extraordinary. A highly decorated member of the paratroop regiment in WW2 who then went on to achieve great success in the business world for which he was knighted in 1980. Above and beyond all that he was an infinitely kind and spiritual man. He adored me and both he and my mother sacrificed a great deal for me as my life descended into chaos as various addictions systematically began to dismantle my life. They put up with my chaos and supported me without question. Amongst his belongings I found a letter that he had written for me to read after his death, the contents of which I can’t even think about without weeping. I adored him. I wish I could tell him that now, but at least both of them saw me get sober and settled.

Phoblographer: When you look at these photos now, over a year later, how do you feel?

Jason: More or less the same depending on my mood. If I’m feeling a little low I would not open the file – obviously I have many more on my drive than the few on the site. I tend not to look at them much. I have pictures of him in my home that recall happier times that are more reflective of him.

Phoblographer: Why this edit of images?

Jason: That’s a tough question. Discounting those that were repetitive and technically unsound due to poor light etc etc – when editing down, the 15 online best capture my feelings that afternoon. These are the ones that sum up what I felt rather than the objectively “best” images.

Phoblographer: Do you feel that shooting film deepened the experience at all, in that you’re several steps removed from actually seeing the photograph?

Jason: I think that it certainly allowed me to be in the moment more. I can’t be sure having not shot digital for a few years, but I suspect that having a screen would have led to checking shots each time and so forth. I don’t think the mood or situation would have gelled very well with chimping!

Plus the time gap between exposure and processing was needed insofar as I was able to grieve and deal with other issues relating to his death without having to relive the afternoon hours later on my laptop.

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Phoblographer: It seems you mostly photographed your father’s memories, be it pictures of loved ones or spaces in his home, what was it like when you looked through the viewfinder at him?

Jason: At his body? Again unsurprisingly it was very odd indeed. When I arrived and was given few moments with him alone I had sat next to him, held his hand for a while and kissed him goodbye. As anyone who has done that will tell you it was like touching cold wax. There was no life there or sign of it. I was prepared for that because of the death of my mother a couple of years previously. As a result I found it hard to look at his body and see my father there. In a bizarre way it was the least ‘him’ thing that I photographed.

Phoblographer: If you could give one piece of advice to someone who will photograph the julius motal the phoblographer jason reed father image9death of a loved one, what would it be?

Jason: Wow that’s a tough question. I generally find that a lot of advice is useless after a certain stage. But, if I had to offer my thoughts following what happened to me, it would be to forget about any so called rules and record what you feel. I cringed a little typing that because it sounds so clichéd. I would think that, if anyone were to be in that situation, any reasoned decisions or calculating thought processes would be utterly dulled by the circumstances – as mine were. At no point was I contemplating having an audience for the images I was making.

I imagine that great photojournalists do something similar in documenting the human suffering they see. The camera becomes an extension of their vision which is drawn to objects and scenes that move them in that instant; as opposed to what they believed the viewer would be moved by. Don McCullin and Eugene Richards spring to mind – but please don’t think I’m aligning myself with those great photographers by mentioning them here. I’m most certainly not. They are just two examples of photographers who regularly found themselves in emotionally overwhelming situations.

That afternoon I photographed things that I was drawn to in the time that I had alone- the dark hallway, his slippers, pictures, the washing. All of these things resonated at the time and I just raised the viewfinder to my eye and froze the moment. I still remember what I was feeling when I look at the images now.

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