Momento Mori

A curious thing happened to me not too long ago. I was in a small village in Korea, photographing the rice harvest. It was a beautiful Autumn afternoon with a clear sky and a warm sun. After the field was cleared of rice I asked for the family of the farmers to pose for a portrait just outside their house under a persimmon tree in a shaft of golden sunlight. I was enjoying the day immensely. After the family had posed for a shot I was asked if it would be possible for me to take a portrait of the grandfather on his own. Of course I happily obliged. He sat in a chair on the road and I took two pictures.

It was then explained to me that the reason they wanted this photograph was that due to his age and general health they feared he was going to die soon. They had no photograph to display at his wake.

He must have known this. It was a strange feeling for me. I felt both honoured and disturbed at the same time. It is a reminder of our own mortality and an indication that photography is a way of recording that which will eventually disappear, a way of holding onto memories of a person, a time and a place. Eventually even the recordings too will become swallowed by time.

I have another photograph of him, or I should say I have another photograph with him in it.

I took a shot of the landscape surrounding the farm. In it he appears as a tiny figure, following a track down to the freshly harvested field at the end of the day, no doubt inspecting his son's handiwork and turning over thoughts and memories in his mind.

He passed away in his sleep this weekend, aged 92.

1 comment:

Andy said...

A somewhat similar situation happened to me a year ago.

Sadly one year ago today my mother-in-law passed away. As is tradition, a photo is placed by the coffin, and is also used to head the procession to the funeral.

My wife is originally from a small village in northern Thailand, and the people there are quite traditional in their views - the photos used are 99 times out of 100 either military photos, or passport headshot photos.

My wife lives in England, and her sister in Thailand's bustling modern capital Bangkok. They decided that they were going to use a cropped version of one of my old photos:

It was very interesting to see just how much this divided people. Those who were older and had lived relatively local all their lives were somewhat opposed to such a photo being used. Those who were younger, and who had lived away, thought it was a much nicer type of photo to use and even stated that it would be their preference for their funeral.

When I shot that photo I didn't for one minute think it may be used for a funeral, but to know it has been is a strange feeling.
It fills me with equal pride and sadness that what was effectively one of my snap shots was probably one of the most important photos in that persons life.