Memento Mori

Memento Mori is the Latin phrase for "remember you shall die". Sometimes the phrase is used to describe post-mortem photography, or memorial portraiture.

This post is obviously not like my usual fun and lighthearted ones, but on a more serious topic that I have recently been dealing with. Last week Skip & I lost a friend under very tragic circumstances. His girlfriend had asked me to take photos of the motorcycle procession leaving the funeral. I have never in my career been in this position before and had many mixed emotions on it. She explained it along the lines of: [he] had previously gone to a bikers funeral where B&W photos had been taken of the motorcycle procession, and [he] had gushed over them and loved these photos reminiscent of the biker photos from the 1960s (a la Danny Lyon's Bikeriders), and she wanted to have these similar type photos taken for him as a homage.

While I really wanted to do this for them, and was honored that she would ask me, I was very nervous about it. This was a situation where I could not control the light, surroundings, people involved, weather, etc. I also had one, very small time frame to get the images I needed. And on top of all of that, this was something that was super important to someone, can not be re-done, and is in an awkward setting where it is normally very frowned upon to take any photos. Pulling the camera out of my bag, I felt horrible, like I was doing something that shouldn't be done. I was worried I was going to upset someone... the last thing I wanted in this situation was to disrespect anyone. Photos completely aside, it was a hard day for everyone there including myself. I still knew that this was something that I had to do, and that although it would be challenging, it would be worth it in the end.

I was ready, I spoke with the bikers ahead of time and explained what I was doing, and how I needed them to come out. I waited at the end of the funeral home driveway and all of a sudden it was chaos... not like I had planned it, not like I had just explained. I got photos of what I could, not quite like I had imagined or hoped, but I got some. I'm happy with the way they came out, and so far I've had a really positive response from his other friends and family members who I've shared the photos with.

I am, at this time, keeping the series private, only viewable to the people that were close to [him]. But, I am including this one shot as an example and the tiniest peak into the series. (Yes, that's Skip, he rode in the procession, wouldn't have it any other way).

A few days after all of this, I was speaking with a fellow photographer friend about the situation, process, and my feelings dealing with this kind of assignment. Taking a photo at a funeral or similar service in our present day American society is so faux pas. I've been thinking a lot about why?? The only time these days we see this is in highly publicised deaths (ex. Princess Diana), or in other cultures. Back in the 1800's however, a post-mortem photograph was common place in the home. My friends theory is that this is because death has been sterlized and removed from the home; makes sense. I can understand why you wouldn't want a photo of the icky parts... dead body, sad people... who wants to remember that. But what about the memorial portrait? A photo of something that is a tribute to the person lost? I like this idea. Something to think about that probably wouldn't normally cross our minds anyways.