The Final Photograph: Documenting the End of Life

Our memories of people we love are rarely defined by the final days. My mother is currently in a home and my father is in his mid-eighties. I have no willingness to photograph them at this time in their lives, primarily because they would not wish me to. I prefer to sit with them and reminisce looking at photographs from the past when we were all younger and in many ways happier.

I know that other photographers do not agree with me on this and are able to document the last days, hours and minutes of their loved ones. I can’t. Perhaps that is a weakness in me. I remember talking with the photographer Steve Pike where he said that his last photograph will be made from his own death bed. That is flipping the process, but his commitment to the medium is impressive.

I always think of Annie Leibovitz when it comes to such images. Leibovitz and Susan Sontag were a couple for fifteen years, travelling the world, sharing their lives, and after Sontag’s death Leibovitz put together a collection of her images of Sontag in a book titled A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 to tell their story. In an interview in The Guardian with Emma Brockes, Leibovitz explained her motivation for making and publishing images of Sontag in her final years like this, “She didn’t want to die. She put up… She wanted to live. She wanted to write more books. That last year of her life, she fought this fight, it was unbelievable. And she was so brave. It was amazing. It was too much. There’s this question: how can you publish these pictures? Well, you could never publish them while she was alive. But she’s dead. And that’s the bottom line.” She pauses. “Susan loved the good fight. And there’s no doubt in my mind – and I do this as if she was standing behind me – that she would be championing this work.” In an article by Jenny Scott with the New York Times Leiboivitz said that the images are “my most important work… It’s the most intimate, it tells the best story, and I care about it.”

Above: Untitled, Annie Leibovitz, 2004 from her book A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005

Only we know who our loved ones truly are and how they feel in life, but I am conflicted by the presumption that we also know what they would have wanted after their death, unless of course any wishes are included in a written confirmation of the facts signed and witnessed whilst the person was of sound mind. I am concerned by the phrase, “it is what they would have wanted.

Similar conflict arises after the death of a musician, writer, artist or photographer whose unseen, unheard or unread work is published by others to present a full picture of the person’s career. That work may have remained unseen during their life for a reason personal and important to the deceased. The recent discovery of Vivian Maier’s work is a perfect example of this. Would somebody who kept her life’s work secret really want someone else to decide which images were the most successful to include in books and exhibitions?

I could photograph my mother now and she would not be aware of what I am doing, her mental facilities are too far gone for her to give or refuse consent. She would not be able to express her opinion on the act of taking the photograph or what I do with it once I have it. My father is too proud to have me take his photograph now that he is not the man physically that he once was. I therefore take on my responsibility as a photographer to respect the feelings and situations of others and do not raise my camera towards them.

I have seen photographers do what I cannot. The images are always heartbreaking in their universal truth that we are all heading for a similar end. That’s life, we are born, we live, we die. The one story that everyone of us has in common. As photographers and visual storytellers we are drawn to such narratives. They present an ethical and creative balance for photographers whose practice explores such challenges. When photographing those we do not know for more than a short period of time it is difficult enough, but when turning the lens onto your own friends and family such a challenge enters new territory of personal grief and introspection.

I thought about including the last photograph I made of my mother within this article. It was at a party and was made before she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s over ten years ago, but it would be wrong for me to do that. She said at the time that it is not flattering. I recently posted an image of my father on Facebook for friends to see. I thought he looked good, but someone commented that he looked like Keith Richards brother, so I immediately removed the post. The comment was made by someone in their 70s, I felt that they should have been more sensitive to my feelings and my father’s, they did not know that my father is not on Facebook.

And that is the problem with making images of your loved ones towards the end of their lives. What do you do with them? This intrusion into a private end. A beautiful portrait may bring solace and a sense of peace to the viewer and potentially the photographer who made it, I get that, but for me photography is history and the images throughout a life lived provide that history, whilst evidencing moments of joy, fun and happiness. Those are the photographs I want to return to again and again.

We have one framed print of my wife’s father in our house. We were given it after he died. In the blurry, soft, sepia tinged, black and white photograph he is a young man standing on the roof of his first car, a mini, on a sandy beach. His arms are outstretched and he is embracing life. I think that is how I would like to be remembered as a photograph.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

1 comment

  1. Not knowing what exists in the ether after the body leaves, makes supposition about how they would feel nothing but a guess. It seems for it to feel right there must be a sense of collaboration in the process, like Sally Mann and here husband Larry documenting his physical transformation after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. He was a willing subject to the process. Hard questions.

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