Would You Photograph a Funeral?

Would You Photograph a Funeral?

Wedding photography is obviously big business for lots of professional photographers, but over on Reddit, Shian Bang (u/shian243) talks about something a little different: his first experiences as a funeral photographer.

While it’s fairly common for press photographers to cover newsworthy funerals, I’d never heard of a photographer being hired to shoot a private event. My granny was kidnapped in the 1980s so her death two years ago was covered in the Irish national media, and we went so far as to get someone to stand guard outside the church in case a photographer showed up. The idea of actually hiring someone to capture seems totally strange to me.

Even Bang was a little taken aback, but he took the job anyway for the right reasons. Even though it wasn’t something he'd done before, Bang “felt it was important to provide for the family rather than rejecting [them] and having to put them through the trouble of looking for another photographer.”

The whole post on r/photography is worth reading. Bang talks about how he found the whole experience, what he learned, and tips for anyone else who finds themselves in a similar position.

But what about you? If you got a phone call from a potential client (or even a family member) asking you to photograph a funeral, would you take it on? Or are funeral photo shoots a big part of your business? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Image used with permission of Shian Bang.

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51 Comments

Cherokee Lair's picture

In my opinion there is nothing morbid about hiring a photographer for a funeral. As long as they are discreet and the other mourners know, I think it is invaluable.
I wish that I had thought to hire one for my father's funeral because I was so emotional I do not remember a single moment of the experience and I gave the eulogy.
This is not people popping up out of nowhere to take a selfie or a Kodak instamatic camera shot.
I've been asked to photograph a two different funerals and both times I said yes. It was not an easy experience especially with an open casket but it was moving and it forced me to confront the fact that our society does not prepare anyone for death.
We need rituals and symbols and we need remembrances and I celebrate any photographer who creates a niche market and gives families tangible moments of the day.
Funerals are for the living, not the dead so why do we not embrace that?

Leigh Miller's picture

Just like any other job...though some might not be up it. There is an entire sub-photo industry in india where families hire photographers to document burial ceremonies etc.

Jaap Venhovens's picture

Hindu funerals have a totally different character then western ones. I photographed one too, as an outsider. Was a totally different experience

Jaap Venhovens's picture

I did a funeral once. A friend requested me, I was very anxious and reluctant to do this. I felt a moral inconvenience in pointing a lens at grieving and crying people. And I did feel very uncomfortable at the first part of the ceremony in a Cathedral. But since the deceased was a hardcore hooligan, the second part took place at a soccer stadium, where I could take my distance. Half of his family was on parole or allowed to leave prison for the funeral and many shots looked like scenes from 'The Godfather' :-)

Cherokee Lair's picture

You know I want to see these now...!

Jaap Venhovens's picture

It was many years ago. And at one point both my hard discs (main drive and back up) crashed in the course of 2 days. I lost 4 years of pictures. Both drives couln't be restored with software and have to be taken to a recovery centre with a 'clean room'. Haven't done that to this day. But thinking about this event now, I think I will this week. To be continued...I hope...

Yes I would photograph a funeral. For two close friends I photographed their husbands' funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and then created a book of the photos for them. These friends were most appreciative to have the images and I was very glad to have been able to do this for them. The challenge is getting great shots without being intrusive at such a tender time in their lives. Leslie

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I've done two. The first one I volunteered for.

A mentor/friend died well before his time. I felt like I was supposed to do more than just attend his funeral. I was quite conflicted about it, though.

I kept going back and forth in my mind about it because I thought photographing a funeral was a strange thing to do, even though I knew it was something that some photographers specialize in.

But a voice inside my head kept telling me that I was supposed to be on duty that day for him, so I told his daughter that I felt strange for asking, but I felt like I was supposed to do this for her dad, so if she wanted me to photograph the funeral, I would.

She was all for it. It was a beautiful ceremony. I shot through tears the whole day and only had two breakdowns when I let my mind shift from my task. I was successful in capturing the day and I'm glad I did it and so is his family.

It was after I reviewed the images that I understood how images of a funeral have their place in the grieving and remembrance process. It's the last time that the person will be above ground and all their family and friends are assembled to send them off. I didn't think funeral photography was strange or morbid after that.

The second funeral I photographed was because a high school buddy's dad passed and he asked me to do it.

In terms of the emotional toll during the ceremony, it was almost as difficult to photograph that funeral as it was to photograph the one of the person I actually knew.

Your mind just kinda goes into seeing yourself on that front row and someone in your life being in the casket. That's what happened to me, at least.

I can't say I won't photograph another funeral. If someone really close to me makes the request, I don't think I could turn them down.

But I don't think I'm cut out for doing funerals for money.

I remember lots of images that photojournalistic reflexes identified, but conscience wouldn't let me raise the camera to capture...people in pain, comforting each other. High emotion "money shots" that feel completely exploitative to capture.

So I let those images pass. Let those folks grieve in peace. Getting the shot is not always the most important thing.

Cherokee Lair's picture

I am so moved by your kindness and your collective consciousness I cannot wait to go view your photography!

Cherokee Lair's picture

I looked and I think your work is amazing. My favorite shot what's the family portrait around the woman in the pink mauve chair and everyone dressed in white!

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

That picture is a couple of years old. In a sad coincidence, in the coming weeks, she might very well be the next service I'm asked to cover. Her daughter told me last week she's pretty much at the "any day now" stage.

The family knew this day would be here soon, which was why we did that photo session when things were good. That picture is hanging on that family's wall as a large metal print.

That family did it the right way. I've had people see my prints (I don't deliver jpegs) and admire them and then wait until somebody dies to contact me about having something printed for the funeral. That always strikes me as absurd.

The picture that they want on display at the funeral should already be hanging on the wall where the person in it could have enjoyed it.

I always turn those jobs down because I'm not in the bereavement photography business and you can't turn around a metal print in time for a funeral and I don't print other people's photos, which is always what the request is...they have some photo they want printed.

If you don't want to celebrate your loved ones through photography when they're alive, don't contact me the day after they die and you're heartbroken. I just don't need that in my life.

Who wants to be talking about pricing with folks who are grief-stricken? Especially when you charge premium pricing?

I just wish more people would think about photography before the funeral.

If I had to cover the funeral for that family in the photo you reference, I would do it. When you are a family's photographer and you've been documenting their journey, covering a funeral is part of that journey.

I guess my view on this is the same as my view on those funeral prints. Just like the prints you want on display at the funeral should already be hanging on your walls, the photographer you want at the funeral should be one you've already been working with when everyone was happy and healthy. Don't wait until somebody dies to contact me about photography services.

Jaap Venhovens's picture

I couldn't agree more. It is not for me either, I'm both too sensitive to live the moment to capture it, and also feel that going for that great shot(s) feels exploitive when doing this on a commercial basis. About photojournalism, I'm a bit 'double'. By definition I find it highly inappropriate to take (unasked) shots from people in moments of extreme grief, suffering or pain (and make money with them). On the other hand such pictures can have a longlasting positive effect on the public opinion. For example I think the pictures of the Vietnam war (especially the one with napalmed girl) have forever changed the way people (who never experienced it) look at war. From the heroic good vs evil point of view of WWII Hollywood movies to the total horror that it really is.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

Totally agree, Jaap. It's about your intent and what are you accomplishing.

Are you taking pictures of homeless people because you're learning street photography and they're easy targets, or are you doing it on assignment for a homeless advocacy organization and those images are part of a campaign to actually help those folks?

The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. didn't really gain traction until the imagery started circulating around the country and around the world. Once the government and police atrocities in the Deep South were made available for the world to see, things started to change because of public consciousness of what was going on.

Martin Nesvarbu's picture

Never to be honest, but have been asked to once and declined, it was my wife who asked when her dad died. The reason is simple, why would you want to remember the person when he is dead, when you have all the memories when he was alive? Enjoy and remember good things not the funeral.

Cherokee Lair's picture

Your wife may have wanted to remember the people that were there and the way they celebrated her father's life and his passing.
Emotional moments are very hard to remember and photography works wonders with that.

Martin Nesvarbu's picture

Tend to agree with you, but what’s better to remember, sad moments and grief at the funeral or all the good moments when the person was alive? I don’t understand why would you even want to have such images? Only brings you pain...if you want to remember someone open photo book with the person alive and smile at the memories.

Crystal Johnson's picture

Not everyone has photos of their loved ones to remember them. A funeral is just an act, it helps a person start the healing process of grief. Memories too can cause emotional instability. Seeing my mother die before my eyes is something I can never let go of. But having something physical from the act of letting her go, which is an angel with her ashes I carry with me, helps me overcome that pain. A photograph of a funeral can be tastefully done to not cause tremendous pain. Maybe your wife had flowers at the funeral her father loved, and seeing them in a photograph could have stirred up the good memories. You never know until you try to relive a memory that time has faded.

Terry Waggoner's picture

I, too, was caught in the same scenario but reluctantly agreed to do it as her Mom also wished it. I was never so unhappy with a camera in my hands........................

Ivan Lantsov's picture

done it - adults, babies no difference

Crystal Johnson's picture

I have no issues with it. Remembrance photography is nothing new. Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, an organization I work with, offers free sessions for bereaved who've lost little ones. Sometimes this is all they will ever have of their child. Families way back in the 1800-1900's would hire photographers to capture their deceased family members to have some sort of tangible memory of their life. A funeral , to me, is the physical act of letting someone go that is part of the much larger scope of grieving. Sometimes you do not see all there is, or all there was with the funeral as you are so grief stricken you tend to lose sight of the details. So, with remembrance photography you do get a chance to see what you might have before, and yes it can stir up emotions, but you need to live through them to feel joy again.

Scott Hussey's picture

I've shot two funerals. Each time, the deceased was an immigrant and most of their relatives were unable to attend. The photos provided a connection for them. And the attendees were informed as to why there was a photographer present.

When my husband died 23 years ago, one of the guests brought a movie camera and filmed the funeral. At the time I thought that was weird, but said nothing. My husband had the most amazing funeral, people of all faiths showed up. Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i prayers were read. Someone hired an Imam to recite from the Q'ran at the grave. Before the coffin was lowered, one of his family pulled out a felt tip pen and wrote a message on the coffin. Suddenly there was a surge of people, writing messages in English, Farsi, Arabic, and Assyrian. There are huge parts of that day that are just blanks to me, but the parts I remember I cherish. The number of people that showed up at the funeral amazed me. My husband had touched a lot of lives. What happened to the video is that it was sent to home country and shared with his family, who could not have made it. I am very grateful that someone did that for them. I would have liked a copy of the video but never got one.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

The only picture really allowable at a funeral imo is that of the body in the casket. More for documentation purposes.

Jim Bolen's picture

Why? So these aren't allowable?

Dan Seefeldt's picture

I wouldn't allow those to be taken.

Jim Bolen's picture

Well, the client was thrilled with what I did for them.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

Hence, I said it wadls my opinion. I'm not stopping others.

user-244549's picture

I can't think of any particular reason to shy away from photographing funerals. It's as much a part of life as any other occasion (apart from, obviously, for the person being buried).

growing up, my moms bf had some family that we grew up with and as time went on one of those kids around my age ended up passing away due to some neighborhood gang activity. the shooter thought he was an opposing affiliate. turns out he wasn't. I was asked to take pictures at the funeral but this request had me so uncomfortable through the whole process. I didn't know it would mean so much to my moms bf and his family. Its crazy how it really is the final send off and not many people get to really embrace all the people one person can bring together.

glad i did it. rip nelson

Covered two funerals on family's request. As long as the family requests and we don't cover it like a wedding, but sensitive towards family, relatives and friends, it should be fine.

This is when 50 - 200 f/2.8 zoom comes handy. Also a wide angle lens will make big difference.

Usually families are okay when the dead is an aged person. Usually the families go through the photo after few months and they will be thankful.

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