If it hadn’t been for the freshly dug graves, I probably wouldn’t have hesitated to photograph the cemetery at San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico. But there was something about seeing the mounds of dirt, recently patted down and not yet flattened, that made me hesitate.
After a certain amount of debate, I took the photo. As a traveler, writer and serious amateur photographer, doing so made sense. The colors were lovely, and the contrast/composition had a certain visual appeal. Also, I felt there was a story to tell about that culture and how those who have passed away are memorialized.
But when I look at it now, I still don’t feel quite right about it.
Yet, when I photographed this cemetery in Istanbul—a very old one—I felt nothing at all. It was much older. I saw no signs of recent burial. And so, it didn’t bother me. And it still doesn’t.
When I took this third photo, in Las Lajas, Panama, I had mixed feelings. The cemetery had both old and new tombstones. It was silent except for a few birds chirping. I stayed for a few minutes, then walked away.
I’ve had this experience over the years—sometimes feeling drawn to a cemetery and feeling entirely comfortable photographing it. One some occasions, however, something felt wrong about being there in general and especially about taking photos. I would take a quick look, then leave.
Where Do You Draw the Line?
I’m wondering how other people feel about this. When it comes to photographing cemeteries, do you ever hesitate as I have? Do you ever not take a photo? And if so, what is the reason? What stops you?
Let’s take this topic by topic and see what we can come up with.
Is it about how old the cemetery is and if it’s still actively being used? Does it disturb you if someone was buried there recently? If it’s been a while, then do you feel more comfortable?
The Culture and Its Views on Death, Cemeteries?
Not all cultures view death the same way. Some welcome it and don’t fear it at all. They celebrate it. Perhaps in those cultures, photographing a cemetery is not a problem? But what if that is not the case?
In the photo below, of the Cemetery of Happiness in Romania, many of the grave markers “tell the story of the life and death of the deceased,” according to the photographer. In this situation, I’d be comfortable taking photos. Would you?
Type of Cemetery?
If it’s military or specific to something historical—perhaps a tragedy that’s been commemorated–is that OK? Perhaps this is a case where it’s important to honor those who served their country. Aside from that, it might be good for people to think and reflect on losses and mistakes of the past, hoping not to repeat them.
How about these types of cemeteries, well-known religious ones, which are popular to photograph? Somehow, seeing the same types of stones together–and so many of them–is compelling and may lead you to pull out your camera.
But what if it’s a small family cemetery on someone’s property, which appears to be private? You spot it from the site of the road and feel compelled to take photos. Should you? I think this scenario, like the “recent burial” one, is a situation in which I might be uncomfortable.
Why You’re Taking the Photo?
What role does a photographer’s intentions play in this?
Some tombstones are truly works of art; in some cases, they’ve commissioned by someone wealthy. Or they’re simply beautiful due to their design, artful carvings or a certain sort of lettering. If you view the cemetery itself and the individual tombstones from this perspective, then is it OK?
On the other hand, cemeteries are sometimes used as a backdrop for a photo shoot. I once saw a woman posing in sexy/goth clothing leaning up against a fence, with tombstones right behind her. Was the line crossed in this instance?
Rules and/or Signs at the Gate?
Maybe the appropriateness of cemetery photos has to do with that particular cemetery’s rules. If you’re not supposed to/allowed to photograph it, then it’s straightforward–you simply don’t. Some travelers/photographers, however, might object to this.
Are you one of them? Would you sneak a shot anyway?
Preserving Memories/Paying Respect?
Is there another angle from which this can be viewed? Are you, on some level, helping preserve the memory of the deceased person? And perhaps the surviving family members would want this on some level?
And what if you took a moment of silence to pay your respects before photographing an individual tombstone, would this change the dynamic of this sort of photography?
What do you think?
Do you believe that photographing cemeteries is appropriate no matter what? Or at there instances where you would put your camera down and walk away? Whatever your views, feel free to share them so that we can have have discussion about this and learn from each other.
If you’ve found this post interesting/useful, then check out one I did last year on the ethics and morals of travel photography in general. The discussion was a fascinating one.
Here are some links that may be of interest:
The first three photos were taken by me; the rest were borrowed via Creative Commons. Click on the individual photos to be taken to the photographer’s Flickr page.