How to Photograph Death

Busan, 2014

Dear friend,

Photograph your loved ones like they’re going to die, and photograph your dead lines like they’re still alive.

The gist of this letter is that I want to share my personal experiences photographing my grandfather’s funeral, photographing his graveyard two years later, and thoughts on photographing death in general.

How I photographed my grandfather’s funeral

Busan, 2014

In 2014, I got a phone call from my mom. She told me, “Eric — you need to fly to Korea immediately. Your grandfather just passed away.”

I was at my house in East Lansing, Michigan. I told Cindy, and I booked a flight straight to Busan, Korea (my mom’s family’s hometown).

I always respected my grandfather, but never knew him that well. I wanted to use this opportunity to get to know my grandfather through photographing the experience of being at his funeral.

I packed a film point and shoot camera (Ricoh GR1v) and 8 rolls of black and white Neopan 400 film. I decided to push the film to 1600 (to have more grit, contrast, and grain) to photograph how I expected to feel — grim, and downcast.

Isn’t it taboo to photograph a funeral?

Busan, 2014

When I arrived in Busan, I wasn’t sure what to photograph. I just decided to photograph my personal experiences.

Everyone in my family knows that I’m a photographer, so nobody objected.

Busan, 2014 / before opening my grandfather’s casket

The only time I wasn’t allowed to take a photo was when my uncle uncovered the casket of my grandfather (the night before the burial). I listened to him and put away the camera. Once my family saw the deceased face of my grandfather, everyone started to cry. I knew the right thing was to not take a photograph at that time.

But as for everything else (before, during, and after) the funeral — I photographed freely. I didn’t think too much when shooting, I just photographed what I felt.

Busan, 2014

I expected to be a lot sadder at his funeral. But to be honest, my grandfather lived a long life (he passed at 92 years old). The incredible thing is that he was 100% mentally-active until he passed. Everyday he painted Chinese-style calligraphy, and kept detailed notes of everything he did. After we cleared out his room after his funeral, he actually had a list of his family members who called him for the new year’s (my name was on the list).

I felt that through photographing the funeral — the number one thought I had was this: We are all going to eventually die, and it is kind of sad, but eventually everyone will get over it.

Even my mom who was devastated when my grandfather passed away (she as full of certain regrets, and wished she could tell him some certain things) — eventually has settled with his death. Now my mom has peace in her heart, and knows that my grandfather is in a better place.

My mom (on the right) / Busan, 2014

As for me, the process of photographing my grandfather made me realize how death brings family together (in a positive way). I hadn’t seen a lot of my family members for a long time. Through the death of my grandfather, it brought my family members closer to one another. Past arguments from the past faded, and everyone became more open and generous to one another.

Family selfie / Seoul, 2017
Family Selfie / Seoul, 2017

I am actually more afraid of photographing my mom’s funeral — when she passes away. She is (after Cindy) the woman I love the most in my life. She raised me, suffered thousands of indignities and hardships, to help me get to where I am. She taught me morales, she taught me perseverance, hard work, and encouraged my creativity. My mom is always behind me 100% — she even encouraged me when I decided to change my major from Biology to Sociology (everyone else thought I was crazy), and even when I wanted to pursue my photography full-time (after having a 9-5 office job).

I want to photograph my loved ones like they’re going to die, and I want to photograph those who passed away like they’re still alive.

Re-visiting my grandfather’s graveyard

My grandfather’s grave / Busan, 2017

A few weeks ago, I visited my grandfather’s burial site after 2 years. I went there with my mom, and it was bitter-sweet. I was there with my uncle, and we chatted with my grandfather. We poured him some soju, prepared him some food, and reflected on our life experiences. My mom told me how much fun she had in the neighborhood as a child. We met one of the old neighbors— and my mom shared a fond memory of riding his shoulders, and pulling on his ears as a child.

My grandfather’s grave / Busan, 2017

My mom also shared memories of her childhood friends, games she played, and how far she walked to go to school (to hang out with her friends). It was a wonderful time that brought my family back together.

I photographed my grandfather’s funeral site — as if he was still alive, and his spirit was alive. I didn’t feel any grief or sadness— rather, relief and joy.

My mom at the site of her old childhood home, Busan 2014
My mom and Cindy / Busan, 2017

I knew that one day I will be the same, buried in the ground. My body will be gone, but my spirit and soul will still be around (somewhere, somehow). Whether that means my atoms and minerals compose into the earth, and give life to new plants or trees — or whether something more super-natural.

As a Catholic, I believe in the life, teachings, and morals of Jesus. I try my best to do good deeds and help others, while being selfless. I try to subtract from my vices everyday. At the moment, I don’t believe in a physical heaven or hell. I still do believe in the soul and the spirit — yet I don’t understand it.

The Cindy Project

Seoul, 2017 #cindyproject

The one project I want to be remembered for after I pass is the ‘Cindy Project’ — photographing Cindy with all my heart and soul. I want the project to remind others: photograph your loved ones like they will die, because they eventually will.

I always contemplate her death, because I know that when it happens, I will be more prepared emotionally. Not only that, but it prevents me from taking any moment with her for granted. I go to sleep imagining like she won’t wake up in the morning. And I wake up and spend time with her like she won’t go to sleep in the evening.

Why do we shoot?

eric kim street photography hanoi ricoh gr ii-0003866
Ha Long Bay, 2017 #cindyproject

I think as photographers, we are all afraid of death. Taking photos is a way of making certain moments and people immortal, through capturing their ‘likeness’ or ‘soul’ in an image.

Whenever I hear news of a famous photographer dying — I look at their obituaries on blogs and websites, and take a quick survey of their books and photos.

Honestly, no matter how famous you are as a photographer, eventually everyone will forget you. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson (who is probably the most famous photographer who ever lived) — is practically unknown by young photographers who only know about Instagram and social media.

Seoul, 2014

So it is a bit vain that we are trying to seek immortality through our photography. Because no matter how accomplished we are, our names, our photos, and our legacy will disappear.

I’ve been studying a lot of ancient philosophy and history — and there are fewer than 10 names which have really stood the test of time.

I’ve been reading a lot of Seneca’s letters, and a lot of the philosophers or famous military generals he quotes, are practically unknown. He mentions the military commander ‘Scipio’ a lot — and I have no idea who that is. But 2,000 years ago — Scipio (there were two of them) was one of the most celebrated generals. Nobody thought people would forget who he was.

Even Alexander the great, who once ruled the entire world, is only a sentence or two in our history books.

So what is the point of photography?

My Mom / Hanoi, 2017
My Mom / Hanoi, 2017

I don’t want to sound depressing through this letter. Rather, I want to be encouraging.

All of us will die. Our loved ones will die, their loved ones will die, our future children will die, and their future children will die.

Who cares how famous you are after you’re dead?

Let us live now. In the present moment. Let us photograph in the present moment because it brings us joy and meaning. And not only that, but when we share our photos with others, it also brings them joy, happiness, and meaning.

Cindy’s mom and Cindy in Hanoi, 2017

I think one of the most noble things you can do is take family snapshots, and share them with your family members. It gives you a chance to capture personal memories, and re-live past family memories.

And you can use your photography as a tool to empower other individuals in the world. You can do this by teaching photography, by sharing inspirational images, or by being a wedding photographer. Any type of photography can bring you (and others) meaning. All that matters is that you photograph with your heart and soul.

Shooting each day like it were my last

Photographing my grandma at her home in Seoul, 2017

I am 29 years old, and yet I don’t know if I will live to be 30. Who knows, I might get hit by a drunk driver, I might die in a plane crash, or I might slip and break my skull.

I use this as a daily reminder to photograph with love and compassion, and to empower as many other photographers and individuals as I can.

My uncle and mom walking away from my grandfather’s graveyard / Busan, 2017

Who knows, if I’m lucky to make it to an older age — perhaps I can look back at my old photos and smile. And look back at old self-portraits of my (once youthful) face. I welcome death openly and gladly; because I know I’m doing everything possible (today) to make the best use of my life.

So friend, don’t delay. Be a photographer today. Better yet, be a photographer now. Shoot with your soul, and never pass up any photo opportunities or experiences you might regret.


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