Mourning with Photographs

Community Workshop


Reflections on the Canterbury Community Workshop

In The Beaney

Awkward, shy, we came
To a safe, welcoming space
To lay bare our hidden grief,
To lay down the weight
Of losing our loved ones.
Old faces, young faces,
We share names, so precious,
Clutch our photos to our hearts.
We tell our hurt, our stories which
Then weave into each other.
We bear witness to living with loss,
Our brokenness emerging as strength.

By Jackie Hickmott

Last Saturday the How we Mourn Project held its first ever day-long community workshop at The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge culture centre, with funding from the Canterbury Christ Church University. The event invited participants to bring in a photograph of a deceased loved-one and tell us the significance it held for them. The workshop’s aim was to provide both a safe and welcoming space for speaking about grief and for sharing with others going through similar processes of grief. The photographs participants brought along provided a focus for conversations, and provided Miranda and I with an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the role these images played in the lives of bereaved people.

It was an overcast day, but jubilee sentiments and Union Jacks were very much in the air as Miranda and I headed over to The Beaney early that morning laden with rucksacks of photographic equipment, and supermarket bags stuffed with food and drink for the participants. Setting up the space we had no idea of what to expect, and wondered if anyone would appear at all. But before we knew it people started to arrive in twos and threes, and soon the large table in the middle of the room bearing trays of muffins and Danish pastries was surrounded with participants. The photographs brought to the table came in different forms: large and small, framed and unframed, coloured, faded, and black-and-white. Further photographs appeared throughout the day: on phones, in albums, in lockets. Other objects of remembrance joined the conversation too: bracelets, rings, tattoos, journals, memory boxes.

The atmosphere generated through the collision of such intense love and loss is hard to describe; I shan’t attempt it. But I will say that the tears spilled around the table that day were both personal and compassionate: tears not only for peoples’ own losses, but also for the pain of others. The sense of belonging to a wider community of suffering has therapeutic potential for the bereaved, as the poem featured above  – written by a participant in response to the workshop –  so sensitively captures.

This is not to say that the day was all about suffering; smiles and laughter were equally present. Jen’s tale of her dear departed grandfather, ‘a German Jewish man, born in the 1920s, called Adolph’ (known, thankfully, as ‘Donny’) had us in stitches. Going through various family snaps of him she noted how ‘he’d always looked like an old man. Even aged 8’.  Jen’s humour was, she admitted, a strategic coping mechanism for her grief and pain. Others had their own strategies  – each unique to them. Most participants had found friendship a lifesaver. Carol dreaded to think what would have become of her without the support of her friend Margaret. Jackie felt the two friends she had made through ‘The Jolly Dollies’ network for widows had ‘saved her life’. We were struck by how almost everyone who came along had brought someone with them for support. These supporters played an important role in the workshop, sitting quietly by their bereaved companion’s side. In a couple of cases supporters were also family members, who had themselves shared intensely in the loss.

A lot was learnt and exchanged that day, not least about the role of photographs in mourning. Photographs  – whether printed or digital – have become such a ubiquitous part of social life that it is easy to overlook their function and significance. Our familiarity with images can lead us to assume that we know what work they do, but as our participants’ stories revealed, there can be more to the photograph than meets the eye: from the way it has been edited and the place in which it is positioned, to the feelings it triggers. While a good many important observations about photographs were made that day, here I want to touch upon some of the more surprising or unexpected kinds of work we found photographs to be performing.

The uncanny photo

The first of these observations concerns the capacity of photographs to mediate the uncanny and the spiritual. As Carol pointed out to us, the three or four of photos she had brought in of her late granddaughter at different ages over her short life all, coincidentally, featured similar motifs and signals: cupcakes, dragonflies, and images of other much-loved, deceased family members. Was it a coincidence that she had dreamed of her granddaughter in a field with her late father, only to afterwards discover that the last photo taken of her granddaughter before she died featured a framed photograph of her late father on the window-sill? In other work for the How We Mourn Project, we have encountered tales of spirits and spiritual photographs, as in the case of the medium who channelled a message to a bereaved wife from her dead husband to ‘stop crying obsessively over my photographs’, or the family portrait that contained a strange shadow in the position where the deceased would normally have been. Spiritual meanings and visual coincidences in photos do not only happen in cases where the bereaved person believes firmly in an afterlife, or identifies as ‘spiritual’, they can occur for anyone. In grief the power of the photo to ‘travel’ through space and time, producing connections and between people and places becomes far more intense and personal. Losing a loved-one confronts us with the fleeting nature of our existence and may open us up to the possibility of other existences and worlds. 

The painful photo

Many years ago, I was unable to have zoom calls with my young daughter when away from home, because she found them too upsetting. Voice calls were ok, but there was something about seeing me on the screen – there but not there – which was too intense and confusing for her. If it can be hard interacting with a mediated imagine of someone you are close to whilst they are alive, how much more so when they are dead. Photographs (like zoom calls) aren’t always that helpful when we are struggling to deal with absence. As Marion put it, even 20 years after the death of her son, catching sight of his image was ‘like a knife going in’. In other work for the How we Mourn Project we have encountered photographs being hidden away temporarily, moved from prominent positions in the house, and even turned to the wall.

But equally interesting are people’s creative responses to the pain that images can provoke. Katherine can hardly bear to look at recently taken photos of her deceased mother. Whilst these are stored carefully for occasional viewing, in albums and cupboards, the only image she has the courage to keep on display is a black and white one from the 1960s, well before Katherine was born. In it she is a smartly dressed, young woman; familiar enough in her features to remind Katherine of her mother, but not the same woman Katherine knew and loved. Caroline, for her part, cannot display photos of her late husband anywhere around the house because their 11-year-old son will not let her, but he doesn’t mind her putting up a photo of a beautiful wooden bench they had carved in his memory.

The death photo

Through our past research Miranda and I have noted the increasing prevalence in personal archives of photos of loved-ones taken after death. These photos taken by relatives, sometimes at the person’s bedside shortly after their death, or else later on, in the funeral parlour once the body has been laid out, constitute a newly emergent form of mourning practice, that is quite socially taboo and little understood.

More people than you would imagine possess such photos, the advent of smart phones seems connected to their growing prevalence. Most people who possess them do so discretely, for our society dictates that these are not photos for display, or even for circulation or discussion. Nevertheless, for some people such images count as powerful and important objects of mourning. In some cases it is not the photo itself but the act of taking it that feels necessary, like a final act of love in parting. For others these images help them to confront the reality of death. For months after her son’s death, the only photo Annie could bear to look at was the one she lovingly called his ‘death mask’. In returning to it over and over she slowly processed the finality of his death and her new state of reality.

Through discussion with participants at the Canterbury Workshop we once more discovered how surprisingly common such photos are. Not everyone was in possession of a ‘death photo’, but in discussing the naturalness and inevitability of death, most saw no problem with them in principle. A number of people discussed having experienced an impulse to take one which they resisted for fear of judgement. Some felt that decision to resist taking such a photo was the better one, others slightly regretted it. One or two people had taken photographs of their loved-ones’ hands after death, and one participant shared a photo on her phone of her husband in his coffin.

Overall, what Miranda and I came to appreciate over the course of a productive and highly emotional day, was the sheer diversity of roles that photographs played in peoples’ mourning practices, from images to be displayed, to images to be hidden, to those to be inscribed on the skin. Yet despite this diversity of uses of photographs of the deceased, it is evident that they play a highly significant and indeed central role in the long process of engaging with our grief.