Headstone of Pixels: Using Photography to Deal With Death

Headstone of Pixels: Using Photography to Deal With Death

The concept of permanence is flawed. Nothing can keep its state, unchanged indefinitely. What is young and vibrant will eventually wither and fade. I never fully grasped this simple truth until my father lay dying in the next room. While he would always be my father, I realized my dad wasn’t as permanent as I once thought. I had confused permanence with stability, and stability was exactly what I needed as my world spun out of control. Gut-punched, I reached out for the most stable thing I could find: my camera.

During the next days, I took a lot of photographs. Dad’s hands were transformed into landscapes and morphine shots became still lifes. I was drawn to the curve of his lips and his matted salt and pepper hair. All of a sudden, the man that endlessly annoyed me as a teenager now appeared as the most beautiful subject I had ever seen. He always had been. I had just failed to see my father outside of his traditional role. But like blue-hour light, my father was quickly fading.

Seduced by the erroneous ideal of permanence, I had waited too long. I had missed the chance to photograph dad with a beer in hand standing over his gas grill. I missed the chance to photograph him holding his fishing rod. I had missed the opportunity to capture the wolf blue of his eyes. Photography aside, I had missed the chance to see my dad.

And then, he was gone.

Moments after my father’s last breath, I had my camera back in my hands. I knew that it was a night that I would never be able to forget. Still, I felt compelled to document everything. I didn’t need a picture to remind me of my father’s last meal, untouched on a small white plate.  I didn’t need a photograph to help me remember the undertakers approaching the porch with a gurney or my dad covered in a black cloth being loaded into a hearse for his final ride. I didn’t need a photograph to remember the wet pavement, slick with misty rain and covered with yellow and brown oak leaves. What I needed was the inherently meditative process of photography.

It is through the lens that I view and often create my own reality. By taking pictures, I actively selected the moments that I wanted to keep as memories, cherry-picking the minutia of the night. Photographs themselves are not memories. As documentary pieces, I only hoped that the images would help reflect on those tragic moments and, with time, would help me process my father’s passing. 

My camera was essential for more than just documentation. Equally as important was the buffer that the camera provided during those first few hours of life without dad. I wanted to be alone. But, with family and a hospice care team nearby, solitude was not an option. My camera became a shield and allowed me to isolate myself in a cocoon.  For me, the barrier somehow worked against gravity and eased the weight of reality.  

After the funeral, the visitors no longer came. The phone calls dwindled, and the crisis-adrenaline my body offered began to subside. I experienced an eerie stillness and, for a moment, wrapped myself in that calm. I took a breath and acknowledged that the grieving process had really just begun. The next major step had arrived, and I was determined to photograph it. 

Entering dad’s house was incredibly emotional. Everything around me reminded me of the man that I had just lost. Like the rest of us, most of my dad’s things weren’t actually special or sentimental to him. Though, in that moment, it seemed that everything I could see was extraordinary. His last remaining jar of Tennessee moonshine became the rarest vintage on earth.  A post-it note with his handwriting belonged in a museum. 

It took sixty years for my father to collect his own household of things. Yet, I knew it would only take a few afternoons to donate or discard his lifetime of acquisition. I didn’t really know where to start. Nor did I want to jump into the necessary work. But avoiding the task at hand would only prolong the process of grief. 

As I prepared his things for donation and the landfill, I interacted with my father’s belongings. I laid my head upon his pillow and held his electric razor to my face. I ran my fingers along the bindings of his books and repetitively opened and closed his pocket knives. I realized that the small chattels weren't sentimental. Even so, before parting with dad’s possessions, I wanted to capture them.

There in my father’s dining room, I created a makeshift studio with the little gear I had with me. I set up a tripod and carefully positioned two Canon Speedlites on stacks of books. I scrounged around the house and found the materials needed to fashion an infinity curve. While I am not a product photographer, I did whatever I could do to create images that would show who my father was.

Photograph by photographm I created a tome of his material things, carving his headstone out of pixels. Each photo served as a portrait of my father, poignantly portraying different aspects of the man that gave me so much. The photographs aren’t of my father’s face. But together, the collection serves as one final image of my dad.  By using my camera as a meditative tool, I created a concluding tribute to my father and slowed the painful process down to a pace that was healthy for me. While I missed so many opportunities to photography my father, I made the most of the present by capturing what I could.

For each of us, photography serves a different purpose. For some, photography is a way to express themselves. For others, it is a documentary tool or a way to make a living. Despite our various reasons for peering through the viewfinder, photography is a way for us to relate to and deal with our world. In many ways, photography helps us shape our personal reality and serves as an anchor of stability through our brightest and darkest times. 

Andrew Faulk's picture

Andrew Faulk is an American photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. Though specializing in portrait photography, Andrew dabbles in all things photography. He is a husband, father, and lover of fried food.

Log in or register to post comments

That's one of the better articles I've ever read.

I am glad you connected to it Kendrick.

Wow. I'm sorry for your loss. Thank you for posting this.

Thanks for sharing. I didn't realise how therapeutic photography can be.

Andrew- beautifully written and profoundly moving. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

My pleasure Mr. Rowe.

Sorry for your loss. This article says more than you typed. I wish you and your family well.

Thanks for the thoughtful article.

Jason. Thanks for your comments. One step forward each day. Again, cheers.

Thank you so much for the wonderful words about your father. It brings back many memories of the passing of my own Dad, the man who taught me to love photography.
I wish you well and hope you retain happy memories of your father.