(Also known as the "missed frame".)
On one of my travels I picked up a small and somewhat unusual photography book. It was unusual in the sense that for a photography book it contained no photographs, not even one. “Photographs Not Taken”, was the title of the book and it was written by Will Steacy. This book is a favorite of mine. It is full of incredibly compelling stories about photographers dealing with the inherent need to photograph life around them and those moments when the photographer or the observer inside looses to life and they need to engage with what is unfolding in front of their lens. Or sometimes due to just plain bad luck they miss the shot they were compelled to capture. Eventually it seems even the best photographers have their moments when life is just too much and they need to put down the camera to engage with their subject and life itself. Depending on the type of photographer you are the situation that stops you from taking that shot may be by needing to help a dying person. It may be having to pick up your child and console them instead of documenting their beautifully angry or sad little face. Or maybe the photographer just stopped to think and consider if yet another gruesome image of a mass murder is really needed …
This book made me think if there were any such shots in my life... What is my tale of “the one that got away”...? Turns out I actually have a few but the one that got away that stands out the most in my mind to this day is a shot I let get away.
It was the night my Father died. It was middle of the night and I was sitting with him in the dark hospital room behind those horrible hospital screens. There was some light and all sorts of hospital noises pouring in from the hallway but they were drowned out by the heavy silence that filled my head. I was the only witness to my Fathers passing. Something I consider a gift. I think of those last moments often. That experience was profoundly grounding yet somehow in its undeniable honesty it was the most surreal experience I had.
I had my camera with me during those moments because I always carry a camera of one kind or another. In the few minutes following the last bit of air leaving my fathers cancer-ridden lungs the room went silent. I could hear my own heart beat and the voice inside my head amplified as I tried to establish what I should do now that my father lay there lifeless but still warm. I remember a part of me saying "you should call a nurse" but I didn't want to. I remember thinking once I leave this room, once another person sees him like this this moment will be over and my Father will be dead forever... I reached for the camera for selfish reason I took the photo. It took all the courage I could muster to take that shot. I saw the image on the back of the camera and it was too dark, too grainy, it was not a reflection of what I was feeling or the simplicity, sterility and honesty of that moment. You could not see my Father's twisted body and the shadow that engulfed him. I couldn't fix the settings and take the shot again. Then a voice said; "What are you doing you stupid girl. Playing at being a war photographer or something... This photograph is not yours to take".
My reasons for wanting the shot were selfish. The camera has always been an object of comfort for me. Taking it out during that moment was comforting. Documenting what matters to me fills a need to hold on to all those fleeting moments and also provides a sense of comfort.
I wanted a physical and visual photograph of this moment to keep forever. Something I could hold in my hand once I could no longer remember the smells and touch the hand...
...because aside from my son’s birth THIS was one of the only moments where I felt truly connected to THIS life and to my Step-Father.
I think of the last moment with my Father often. Sometimes I'm caught off guard by this memory and a jolt of pain runs through my heart. The details though, they get smoothed out with time and the visual that was so deeply burned into my mind is somehow faded... Not sure if the photograph would have been a comfort in the end. I think not taking the photograph was a good decision.
So there you have it. That is my story of the one that got away.
< Book cover mentioned in the beginning.