About 9 months ago, I put a little post-it note on the top of my computer screen. It simply said:
“write article about going places without your camera”
Problem is…I seldom leave the house without at least A camera.
When I write…I must be inspired to write. It’s one of the reasons I don’t post personal blogs very often. If I FORCE myself to write an article or a blog post, I find it turns into a train wreck.
The post-it sat there for about 2 months until I got annoyed looking at it, and then I wrote the same idea to myself in an email (a way I tend to remind myself of things), where it continued to sit for even more months.
Then my mother-in-law passed away in January, and everything stopped. No work, no social time with friends…just supportive husband mode. It was during the events surrounding the funeral that I had an ill-timed epiphany on why I never wrote the article. It was because I sadly needed an event like this to write it with authority. To HAVE that experience of being forced to leave my camera behind.
Frannie (my mother-in-law) had been dealing with her cancer struggles for 5.5 years. We knew the end was coming, and in the end, it came quickly.
There were times during those last visits to the hospital that my mind would just NOT…SHUT…UP!
While the family was standing around the hospital bed, all I could think about was how the shot would be framed and how this is a story to be told. I know it sounds heartless, but believe me when I tell you…it’s just where my head went. I’m not proud of it, mind you…but without the help of pharmaceuticals, it’s where my mind just automatically goes.
I was always close with Fran. She was “Mom” when my own mother was still alive, and fully took up the mantle of “Mom” when my own mother passed nine years ago. I know plenty of men out there who can’t stand their in-laws. I was lucky enough to marry a woman whose own family has always treated me as one of their own. I think that’s why I couldn’t shake the mindset I was in…because this was part of a story, it just so happened to be part of mine.
Needless to say, I did NOT take that particular photo.
Fast forward two weeks to the family visitation and funeral. I did NOT bring my camera with me (it was more of an internal struggle than I’d thought it would be). And, we had 4 hours of family visitation over a period of 12 hours and then the funeral itself. Anyone who’s gone through this knows the routine and how weird it can be when the line stops moving…it’s just this awkward moment of staring at someone you’ll never see again in your life. But of course, I’m staring at the facial features, figuring out how to light them and so on. I tried to block those thoughts out of my head, but let’s face it…that just made it worse.
During the evening of the first visitation, the family (18 in all), were waiting for the first visitors to arrive. I could only do so much to help out, so I stayed off to the side and do what I always do. I watched people. I saw shot after shot after shot pass in front of me…feeling helpless and frustrated without my moment-capturing appendage. I couldn’t do much other than to be a comfort to the family…but I could do this, damnit! This is my superpower. Find a fleeting moment in time and tell the story that surrounds it.
It really is the only thing I’m good at. Take that away from me and I feel like Samson after his hair was cut.
Tom (my father-in-law), was sitting alone, near the box that contained Fran’s ashes. He was obviously trying to psych himself up about meeting all these people that were about to file in. I broke. With the large church serving as the background of this very sad scene…I pulled my iPhone from my suit pocket and started to frame the shot without being obvious. At that very moment, my wife happened over to sit down and check on him.
At once, I felt both pride and shame in myself. I couldn’t stop myself from making that picture. I stole from them a moment that wasn’t supposed to be seen by anyone other than those family members surrounding them. A child trying to be emotionally supportive of a grieving parent. It’s a shot any of us would have taken had we been on the clock.
But at the same time, I made a picture that I knew both my wife and my father-in-law would be ok with me making. I knew this image would speak to them both. The baby of the family; the youngest of five children, supporting her father with love and compassion. Frannie & Tom had always been two of my biggest supporters, pimping both me and our services out to anyone who would listen, and hanging a lot of my work in their home. They’d both understand, as would my wife.
As a person though, I still felt badly about making it. It bothers me that I can’t shut my mind off to events like this. That I can’t stop looking at life through my viewfinder eyes.
Photojournalists don’t have 9-to-5 jobs. When we’re off the clock, we’re not REALLY off the clock. Our minds are always looking at the world and inadvertently trying to figure out how to frame what we’re seeing.
I always think of the meme involving a photographer, his significant other and the sunset.
We just can’t shut our minds off…it’s not just simply what we do, it’s who we are. It’s as much a part of our DNA as anything that’s formed naturally. Every single one of us were CALLED to this profession.
I’m not proud of what I did, but at the same time…it IS what we do. We regularly interrupt these moments of solace and grief of other families in the name of news. It’s what we get paid to do.
But it still sucks that I can’t shake this feeling that I’ve done something wrong, even though everyone in the family liked the picture.
I have a hard time leaving the house without a camera…I have a hard time looking at that image and wondering if I made the right decision in that moment. I have a hard time knowing that for the rest of my days on this Earth…I can’t just enjoy a sunset, or be there fully for my wife during a time of great sorrow without seeing an internal meter pop up in my head.
Hi. I’m BP Miller, and I’m a photojournalist.