Photographer Abe Van Dyke Documents His Mother's Passing

Photographer Abe Van Dyke Documents His Mother's Passing

We often look at photojournalists and think, how could you do what they do. How could you stand around taking photos while people are suffering or could benefit from your help? On the other hand, we rarely think about transfering that realm into something tragic that happens in our own eyes, but that is exactly what Abe did.

On the afternoon of December 9th, Abe called the paramedics and his mom was taken to the hospital for trouble breathing. He documented the ambulances at the house and he stated that "at first we thought it was just a cold or pneumonia. She had already had difficulties breathing but this wasn’t our first trip to the hospital. I took the initial photos of the emergency vehicles arriving on Monday 12/9/13 because over the years I have shared intimate details about my life on Facebook as a way to cope." His mom was then put in the ICU and after a few days transferred to a regular unit on December 12th for doing better. "She was moved back to the ICU the next day and I knew something wasn’t right," Abe said. Later on the 13th when he was visiting she forgot his name, and she slowly declined and Abe was made medical power of attorney (POA) on December 14th. After being made POA, on the 14th Abe had to authorize putting his mom in a medical induced coma and on a ventilator to help her body rest and fight the infection. Abe then started to document the process with his mother in the only true way he knew how, photos.






On December 17th they made the decision they would take his mother off life support later in the evening. There would be no CPR or life saving measures. Abe removed his moms earrings and cried. Her rings were taken off and they braided her hair to donate it to locks of love. They sat with her and at 7:02pm they removed the ventilator. She quietly passed at 7:34pm.


The entire time Abe's mom was in the hospital, her oxygen levels were low and continued to decline. The doctors didn't know why she wasn't responding to treatments. It wasn't till Abe saw the death certificate that the official cause was pneumonia and COPD from being obese. In situations like these we always wonder what we could have done differently. I spoke with Abe about the process and asked what he would have changed with his documentation. He explained "I would have taken photos of my mom from the very beginning. I would have shared more of her day to day status on Facebook so others could follow and I would have an outlet to cope. I would have photographed her awake and smiling when she could. I would have photographed my dad sitting in the chair who refused to leave her side the entire nine days." While going through the process Abe got sick and ended up having a panic attack on the way to the hospital one day. For the most part as far as emotions went, he said "I separated myself from the situation by suppressing all emotions while photographing. I worked as if it was any other job that needed a story to be told. Later, after I took the last photos of my mom being placed into the hearse I was able to break down. I sobbed uncontrollably and let it all out."


When I asked Abe why he decided to document his mothers hospital stay was that he got "the initial idea in [his] brain to photograph [his] mom in the hospital from Jared Polin of Fro Knows Photo. For years [he has] listened to his podcast and followed his work. He went through this same process with his own mother and [Abe] believe that memory made it “ok” to photograph [his] own mom."  He edited the photos right away and posted them to a separate section on his website titled 'mom.' Often we document the good in our life but we forget how much pain and suffering we go through. Sometimes it's sad but it's a natural process. After this experience Abe insisted "photograph everyone you care about and don’t dare put down the camera until you tell the entire story. Don’t sugar coat the truth; be honest, be open, be real." If you're going to document life, document it all.

View the rest of Abe's photos of his mother here. If you'd like to send him condolences, feel free to email him,

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David Vaughn's picture

I don't know how I feel about this, and the fact that he took the idea from Fro "Bro" makes me even more leary. From an ethical standpoint I don't have any issues. It's like people who photograph funerals. But the photos just...don't have much impact for me since I wasn't there and I have no emotional attachment to this person. And there's just something that's missing for me, a distant viewer, to really feel something.

I think it might be because I'm unconsciously comparing these photos to those of Angelo Merendino, who photographed his wife's battle with cancer. Those photos made me cry, but these seem very...voyeuristic and disconnected in some respects.

Now, regardless of the photography, I do give my condolences. I'm sure taking some of these photos was a very difficult thing to do, and I really can't imagine how you were feeling (and still are) in that situation. I'm glad you took the photos if not for us, than for YOU to have and appreciate.

I think much like with the "Bro" and several other documentations like this that I've seen, he was using the camera as a way to shield himself from the sad reality of a loved one passing. The camera creates a detachment from the reality and is sort of a defense mechanism. That is very sad and I give my condolences to him and anybody else who has lost a loved one.

As photographic value however, I don't want to do anything with this. I deal with enough in my own life.

Jerrit Pruyn's picture

I am truly sorry for your loss. I am torn if I would do this with my parents. I want to remember them as they lived their lives not the last moments. I do not mean any disrespect with this comment at all, just my view.

Concept is ok. But from pure photography perspective, even using documentary standard, these photos have little artistic value in it, i mean the composition, the angle etc are way too casual. like some comments here, these photos don't provoke any emotional reaction from the audience. Well, maybe he never intents to do that. Anyway, I will call this a series photos, not necessary "Photography"

Sorry to be so harsh on this. but since this is on a photography website, I guess it's ok to voice my opinion from Photography perspective. Nothing personal. R.I.P

Tasso Karpouzis's picture

Guys not sure where you are going with this. He isn't the first guy to photograph the loss of a loved one. The photos he took aren't very good either. My deepest condolences to Abe. I visited his site and he has some nice photos and he looks like a very nice person. From a photographic/humanistic standpoint i just don't get the message of this post. I think you have to be a little more selective with the content your site and stay with quality over quantity.

These pictures moved me, but mainly bc my mother went through an almost identical ordeal in December 2010, she was near death and recovered (mostly) and lived for 2 more years. Just seeing the ICU and the tubes gave me chills and took me back to a time that was really stressful.

I agree with the voyeuristic feel to these photos though, and it somewhat bothers me personally. If it helps him and his family to heal, then who am I to say no? One thing that bears mentioning though, is that Jared Polin (FroKnowsPhoto) documented his mother's passing over a much longer timescale, his mother knew about and agreed to the photos being taken.

This was such a spur of the moment, and without her knowledge, that it kind of bothers me. If anything, this is something that I personally feel should have been kept among friends and family.

Sorry for your loss Abe, and I hope that your family is able to find peace.

why is this even on here? the photos are terrible, good bye fstoppers

Jerrit Pruyn's picture

I wish I could say we hate to see you go....

oh gee, yet another jack ass photographer

Jerrit Pruyn's picture

I figured you were already gone, I highly recommend you check out . It might help.

thanks for the tip, i appreciate it. my last comment stands still stands

I think the worst part of this report are the insipid comments judging the photographs. I mean, making comments about composition and how they have no artistic merit? Are you people serious? Yes, this is a photography website, but emotion is more important than technique.