How Photography Was My Shield in Battling Loss and Grief

Like many of you, I’ve used photography as a form of therapy.

“Hey, Auntie Joan, isn’t this the day we cremated Grandpa?” That’s how my day started–by looking at memories on Facebook and remembering a time when I first became content with shooting landscapes. This was an incredibly difficult time. I was in my early 20s and already facing an incredibly rough job at the B&H Photo Social Media Dept. But I remember when my sister called me to tell me about how a stroke had destroyed over 40% of my grandfather’s brain. So my sister, mother and I got into our car, left our home in Queens for a few nights and went up to Toronto. You see, this was a complicated death. It’s one that we had been expecting for a long time. But a few things made this one especially difficult for me, and my Canon 5D Mk II was my only shield. As I type that, I remember the day that I threw it down the trash chute in my old Brooklyn apartment. That camera was my shield. And like many of you, photography has been a welcome distraction for holding back tears and completely losing it.

This particular death was hard. It wasn’t because of the fact that I knew it was coming. Instead, it was because of a significant faction difference between my family–or at least it felt that way. Years ago, my mom got into a massive fight with her siblings and my grandmother over ensuring that her father (my grandfather, who passed away) was being taken care of. She wasn’t happy with what they were doing and the fact that the family didn’t spend enough time with him. My sister sort of proved that by interacting with my grandfather and being interactive with him–which is something that most of them up there didn’t have enough time to always do. In some families, you send parents away to shelters. But in others, they stay home. My family did the latter.

For better or worse, my sister and mother were on one side. My sister still doesn’t talk to that side of the family, except for one uncle. But I sided with the rest of the extended family. So within my own immediate family, I was the outlier. It got me into many fights, and my mother isn’t one to just let things go. Well, she wasn’t that is. She’s gone now too, thankfully. But that’s another story.

During the entire funeral proceedings and all the family interactions, I often shot photos. I wanted to remember these people and everything that happened. At that time, I didn’t know when I’d see or speak to them next. My mother was overbearing and hated the fact that I talked to her siblings and even to my father, whom she divorced. It was toxic.

So mix all this together, and force a young 20-something entrepreneur with a day job to chug it down. The only semi-escape I had was photography. It kept me sane during that time. I shot a lot of photos during this entire process. And I was even one of the people to put grandpa’s coffin in the oven to be cremated.

Seeing myself and others lift his coffin and watch it slowly go into a giant oven was insane and horrifying. I remember how hot the fire was. And then suddenly they closed the door on the oven. And we all cried. I remember being in so much shock. Even now, it haunts me at times. So on our last night, I went outside of our hotel room to go shoot some landscapes. These photos were the result of that moment. Whenever I look at them, I’m reminded of that incredibly difficult moment in my life. Photography was my shield and, in many ways, a savior to me.

And during this time, photography was probably my most useful shield. I’ve learned not to always use it as a crutch or as a shield. But sometimes, it’s the only thing that will work.