Love and Responsibility

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories

Cathy, the nice upbeat woman who worked upstairs from me at my company died two weeks ago on a Sunday evening in her sleep. I took her last professional photo.

I’ve had other people die, two before, now three, that I’ve photographed or videotaped. And I can tell you in all honesty that it freaks me out. The whole ancient fear of stealing one’s soul with a camera comes sharply into focus when all I have left of someone is an image on a computer and the imperfect memories in my mind. You feel responsible for the photo, for the visual memory that people will see. So when they asked me for a copy of Cathy’s last photo, I just gulped to myself.

I only kind of knew her, but it was still a shock because of her age. She was 43 and died of complications from cosmetic surgery. She had recently lost a lot of weight and wanted to tighten up her appearance. As an additional irony, the photo was from before her rapid weight loss.

So the organizers of the memorial wanted to frame her photo and place it on display for everyone to look at during the service. I searched my archives and found one. It was from an award ceremony back in April. 10 years of faithful service. These are photos that should normally be taken by someone who has nothing better to do. They are prom or graduation-style, and fast fast fast. I usually take just enough time to make sure they aren’t blinking. But the lighting setup is only so so and honestly, if the volume of people who needed to be shot was less, I’d try harder to take a better photo. But as the situation often is, the more boring and pointless the shoot seems, the less you try.

It took a few minutes to work with the administrators and their color printer to get everything working correctly. As Cathy emerged innocently smiling from the printer, I felt a sort of pride that I was there at that time and place in the universe to have taken her photo and to be there printing it out on the occasion of her death. I couldn’t help but wish I had taken a little longer with the shot, not because I was embarrassed at it’s non-perfect quality, but because I felt that for all her niceness, she deserved more. And as people told stories during the service, her husband looked around at strangers who knew that part of her life distant from the one he knew with the woman he loved. And the rest of us who were silent looked ahead past our pamphlets at Cathy’s last photo framed on the table. A slow flickering candle burning next to it. Cathy’s two parents smiled so wide as stories were recounted of her helpfulness and holiday decorations, people laughed, and they cried, and when the silence was broken by tears, they knew that a successful life is not determined by it’s length but by the people you effect around you.

What do you think?