In September of 2008, my grandmother asked me to photograph her funeral portrait. My grandmother, who is alive and in good health, is the matriarch of a large family and has always been a planner; in asking me to take her picture there wasn’t any sentimentality about her eventual passing, only matter-of-fact pragmatism in capturing her likeness before she was gone.
Death portraits have been made throughout the history of photography. They play an important role in memorializing the dead and in people’s grieving process. While I tried to photograph my grandmother with equanimity, my role as a photographer was not benign. Each photograph was made to portray her in the way that I perceive her to be: strong, stoic, determined and having overcome hardship. While looking through the negatives I chose the dignified portrait of my grandmother with one hand placed just above her stomach as the most ‘true’ characterization of her. My grandmother, however, chose a different photo for her future funeral portrait, one where her personality appears softer, more ‘grandmotherly’, and more content. In asking for these portraits, my grandmother understands the role of photography in shaping one’s identity and memories. The medium of photography provides a fragment of the whole individual, and enables my grandmother to choose the legacy that she leaves behind.