Marchbank's mother tending her garden

On dying, photography and being profoundly present

I wasn’t around as much as I could have been when my father was dying from pancreatic cancer in the first half of 2003. Looking back, I didn’t realise that he probably needed me to be more present with him and, perhaps more importantly, that I needed to be in those moments with him. It was only when I read about Celine Marchbank’s project titled “Tulip” that I made the connection between photography and the profound, yet simple, act of being present in a moment.

Tulip began an effort to document the treatments her mother received and became something much more intimate and profound: the result of Marchbank’s decision to be profoundly present with her mother in that last year.

As Marchbank wrote on her site:

In September 2009 my mother, Sue Miles, was diagnosed with lung cancer and a brain tumour. While I was trying to come to terms with the fact she was dying, I decided I wanted, or maybe needed, to document the time she had left. I didn’t want to create a graphic portrayal of her death, it would have been impossible and wrong to focus only on the dying part, but rather I wanted to photograph our last months together. I looked at the things that made her uniquely her, the details in her house I thought I knew so well, the things that would also be gone when she was. Her love of flowers was a beautiful part of her personality; the house was always full of them, and as I photographed them I realised they were symbolic of what was happening – they represented happiness, love, kindness and generosity, but also isolation, decay, and finally death.

When my father was diagnosed, it was easy to focus on the mechanics of his illness and the hope that some treatment combination would make it all go away. I focused on treatments, tests and alternatives. In the process, I overlooked something far more important that Marchbank explained to Homa Khaleeli at The Guardian:

For Celine, however, the news that her mother’s lung cancer and brain tumour were untreatable was a turning point. She stopped focusing on the scans, lasers and tubes, and turned to look at the stillness and familiarity around her. “There’s a picture in the book of my mother with a doctor; it’s when they were telling her she had another brain tumour,” she says. “That’s when I thought, what am I doing? This is not what I want to remember her by.” Instead, she began focusing intensely on the time they had together. “Lots of the pictures are just little moments that mattered,” she says.

Now that I think about it, I find myself wishing I made a similar decision with my father 13 years ago.

Photography is about capturing moments. Something that stands out for me about Om Malik’s photography (to name just one photographer I admire) is that if you are deliberate about your photography, you can’t help but be present and in that moment. Making photographs isn’t an off-hand activity. It requires you to be profoundly mindful of the moment you are focused on, even if it is just for a few seconds.

Cat by Celine Marchbank
By Celine Marchbank, used with permission.

Tulip has really struck a profound chord for me because it embodies Marchbank’s determination to remain in those moments with her mother even as she couldn’t help but watch her mother’s decline. That reflects tremendous courage and touches on my deep regret is that I lacked similar courage to be more present with my father in his last months.

Looking back, I can also understand why I kept busy, remained in denial for so long and didn’t seem to have the time to see him more often. Watching your parent dealing with a terminal illness and come to terms with the inevitable is so difficult. It was so hard to empathise, even though I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to do it all over.

One of my father’s most enduring gifts to me was his love for photography. My parents gave me my first SLR for my 13th birthday (my bar mitzvah). Before that I have vague memories of a small compact camera that I carried around with me at times. I have been making photographs for roughly 30 years (give or take a few). My photography has remained an integral part of who I am for so long, even the years when I was less active.

As I sit here thinking about what Marchbank’s Tulip means to me, I can’t help but see much of my photography as being a wonderful exercise in mindfulness.

My family has a running joke whenever we go out somewhere and I take out my camera: they know that we’ll be walking somewhere and suddenly notice I disappeared. Mostly I will have stopped walking a few minutes before to make a photo. What I experience is the compulsion to capture a moment that I see (I often see the world around me in photographs). The challenge is picking the moments to capture and not sacrificing the significant ones.

I’ve written about my obsession with documenting my family and parts of my life through my photography. I’ve thought about it as being about recording our lives for future generations but as I think about Tulip, I realize that it is so much more than that.

Family photos are a generational thing

Photographing my family and my life is about being in those moments more fully. It is a reason why my DSLR is a better choice than my phone because, with my camera, there is no distraction of sharing the photo immediately. Unless, of course, I don’t have my DSLR with me and then that maxim about the camera you have being the best camera applies.

I think I have tended to focus on the memorial aspects of photography. I capture these moments because I don’t want to lose them to time and failing memories. Although attachment to things is the source of suffering, memory can be a source of tremendous joy. Marchbank commented on this aspect in her blog post titled “So that’s that then.”:

As I looked through the book checking every image for a final time, I stopped on a page, something really hit me, it wasn’t even one of my favourite images and not particularly an image that shows a poignant moment. It was a close up portrait of my mum’s face, all you really see is her eye lashes. In what was probably only a few seconds of time that I was starring at it, it felt like a hundred tv screens were playing in my head, each flashing up a different memory. What I really remembered was the feel of her eyelashes, she used to do Butterfly Kisses on my cheek when I was a young child, and I could feel them on my face right then and still can. She had tiny, short lashes, so it was this really light soft touch, I can remember it so well.

I find that as I go through the slides I have from my parents, they spark memories I thought I had lost, ghosts of past moments that meant so much to me at the time. Photographs are like sensory time machines, they take us back to powerful moments in our past that remind us who we are.

Thomas Hawk, another photographer I admire, embarked on an ambitious project to make 1 million photographs before he dies. His goal is modest: capture and preserve the character of the United States and his experience of it. I really resonate with this and Hawk’s project was another catalyst for my realisation about my photography’s purpose in my life.

Tulip is a wonderful project for many reasons. Marchbank’s photography is beautiful. I love her style and how she saw those difficult times. Deeper than that, her work reminded me about the power of being truly present in a moment and how my photography can help me achieve that.

Photographs by Celine Marchbank (used with permission)


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