A Very Personal Post
Last weekend I asked everyone on a local photography forum ‘Sooo… what’s everyone shooting this weekend?’ I asked the question knowing I wouldn’t be shooting anything that weekend. I was going to be flying interstate with my partner to be with our family as his grandfather was dying. It’s rare for me to travel anywhere without a camera of some sort. But this weekend it just didn’t seem appropriate or necessary.
His grandfather was in a nursing home and had stopped responding to people 48 hours before we arrived. It was heartbreaking. He was lying slightly to one side facing the window with his mouth wide open, taking in big gulps of air. His whole body was heaving as he lay there, trying to fill his lungs with enough oxygen to support his body. He looked tired. And worn out.
So were his family. His two daughters and their husbands had been maintaining a bedside vigil with him for days. Everyone was exhausted.
At a particularly difficult time of the day his lungs started filling with fluid from his body and the noise of his breathing was heartbreaking and very difficult listen to. Even more it was difficult to just sit around, powerless. No one really knew what to say or do. We were all just hoping he wasn’t in pain.
The Busy-ness of Grief
During the days I busied myself by organising food and cups of tea, helping with funeral arrangements, holding hands, and generally trying to support people as they too tried to busy themselves. But what I really wanted to do was take photographs; of him, our family, those moments.
It felt selfish and intrusive of me to want it. But I was itching for it anyway. It wasn’t like I wanted to preserve the moment, or give people something to remember, because who would want to remember the last painful moments of a spectacular life 90 years long? So many other incredible things to remember!
At first I thought it was because I wanted to hide behind my camera so that I didn’t have to connect with the situation or the people. But that wasn’t it. I felt comfortably and deeply connected to my family.
Why I’m a Photographer
I realised that I wanted to frame images in my camera so that I could frame the situation in my mind. For the first time I got a sense of how my camera helps me make sense of the world. When I can order things in a frame it helps me order my thoughts and feelings. When I get all the elements right to create a powerful image I know it.
I know it.
I can feel it in my body.
When I saw the Annie Leibovitz exhibition some months ago I remember being quite horrified that she took images of her partner, Susan Sontag, both during and after her death. I remember asking myself when did her photography stop and her life start?
The answer, for me, is they are the one and the same. One does not exist without the other. I am a photographer. It is how the world makes sense to me. It’s not simply a job, and it’s not an obsession, it’s a necessity – like breathing. I don’t think I ever really understood my relationship to my camera before that weekend.
We arrived back at my in-law’s place. My partner looked through the liquor cabinet for something to toast the old man with.
‘There’s a bottle of Jamieson’s here that was meant to be a gift to Grandfather.’
He poured a generous five fingers into the glass and bowed his head in silent prayer to the old man. He raised his glass, sipped the whiskey and got on with reheating last night’s pie.