It’s always easier to tell other people’s stories, isn’t it?
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, we got “the call.” My oldest sister Cathy’s battle with Lymphoma was coming to a much quicker-than-expected end.
After a three-hour drive to Albany, my husband, my three children and I arrived rather frantically to the hospital in anticipation of seeing my sister for the very last time. As we unloaded the kids there in the parking garage, I had to decide if I should leave my camera tucked away in my car, or bring it up with us to the room.
I said, “just leave it in the car.”
My husband looked at me and raised an eyebrow, questioning my decision.
“I’m not going to take pictures of my sister as she is dying,” I told him.
How awkward would that be?
As a documentary photographer, I’m used to capturing the day-to-day joys and challenges of my own family life, as well as for my clients. But this was different. I didn’t know what condition to expect to find my sister in. After all, we had just visited her in her home three weeks prior, where she spoke with hope and confidence about a new cancer treatment that she was waiting to begin, and even then, I couldn’t bring myself to take out my big camera to photograph her.
Pin this to come back to this bravely documented story:
It felt too much like silently saying, “I’m taking pictures of you now just in case you don’t make it.” And now, here she was in her final moments of life… surely this was not the time to bring along my camera.
We had to hurry. We were racing the clock to get to her in time. I closed the door to the minivan and we started walking towards the elevator. My husband stopped, ran back, grabbed my camera bag out of the car and said, “Just in case. You’ll know if you want to use it.”
When we got to her room, she was vacillating between moaning and sitting up, staring intently at each of us and smiling. “Hi! How ya doing?!” Then, she’d look away and groan, “GET ME OUT OF HERE!!! I WANT TO GO HOME!” as she tried to pull herself up out of the hospital bed. It truly felt like we were witnessing a woman in transition during labor, and I realized then that dying looks a lot like birthing. The complex process of facing fear, tightening up, letting go, and finally, embracing new life.
Have you ever had to make the choice to use your camera to document an uncomfortable time in your life? Was it worth it?
I regret not making images of my sister during our prior visit with her, just weeks before she passed. She looked so good and was in such good spirits. But this time, when I saw my sister in her current condition, I knew those occasional smiles as she looked around trying to identify each of us were fleeting.
When Cathy’s daughter stood by her side, holding her two-year old up to her so that my sister could say goodbye to her beloved grandbaby, she seemed to snap out of the haze for the briefest of moments. Cath opened her eyes, recognized her granddaughter, and gave her this huge, genuine smile. It was just this final, very brief glimpse of consciousness. I’m so grateful that my husband had grabbed my camera for me.
“You’ll know if you want to use it.”
I will forever treasure the images I captured in those few seconds. I’ll never forget seeing my sister in her last hours with us- how much she had changed since our previous visit, the back and forth between her moaning and her efforts to escape from the hospital bed, her friendly nature even in her time of dying, and those final smiles that were so characteristic of the Cath we knew and adored.
For my children, this was all very impactful. Witnessing their strong, joyful and loving aunt transition to her next life is something my little people can’t easily shake. These images provide them with a tangible connection to help them remember that blurry day…. yes, that really did happen when you were 8, 6, and 3 years old.
I didn’t really reach for my camera that day for myself. I was compelled to create these images for my goddaughter, my sister’s granddaughter Lena, so that she’d forever remember her GiGi smiling at her one last time before cancer stole her away from us.
Picking up the camera to document a difficult personal story may not always feel like the right thing to do. But when it does — when it IS — you just know it.
Writing and photography from AnneMarie Hamant.
I am a full-time family photographer in the Lehigh Valley, PA (about an hour north of Philadelphia). I manage my business full-time and homeschool my 6 and 8 year old boys while somehow keeping up with our spunky 3 year old girl. I began my photography addiction back in college with a Canon film SLR, a kit lens, and many travels throughout Latin America. While my work has evolved so much over the past two decades, I am certain that my early interest in travel photography has shaped my visual voice. My work is still characterized by vibrant colors, shapes, angles, textures and most importantly connection and emotion. The stories I tell through my lens have also evolved as I emerged from globetrotting into motherhood, but I am forever drawn to documenting our everyday and making art out of the ordinary.