exquisite witness

Why funeral photos are exquisite witnesses

Just as fear diminishes when it is aired, something every parent knows when they encourage their children to recount their nightmares, the feeling of loss diminishes when it is witnessed and so it becomes bearable. Conversely, if feelings are unbearable, they will be repressed and thus stymie the grieving process which is dependent on being in touch with them.

Patricia Thomas, a pastoral carer, recently introduced me to the term ‘exquisite witness’. The term sums up the ideal qualities of someone caring for the bereaved. The carer needs to be exquisite or highly sensitive and they need to witness and not advise or direct.

Exquisite witnesses are rare in my experience. At funerals there are often friends and family wanting to support the bereaved but they are rarely comfortable in their role. And so the person grieving is very much alone and thus overwhelmed.

I now regard my funeral photos as exquisite witnesses who patiently wait until the person grieving is ready, sometimes long after the funeral. The funeral photos, by being non-judgmental records of intently felt emotion, are able to engender feelings of loss. Because the funeral photos record moments and can be looked at individually, they help make grief bearable and not overwhelming. The photos can be shared and in doing so, allow others to support the bereaved.

One of my clients wrote about my work:

“When we were blind with grief at mum’s funeral, you were our eyes.”

As a photographer I see what others cannot but it is my funeral photos which are exquisite witnesses.