What it's really like to be a funeral photographer

Pip Christmass

Most people would probably understand why photographers enjoy shooting weddings - they get to witness the union of two people in love, capturing celebratory moments of happiness, dancing, drinking and romance.

But why, you might ask, would anyone choose to be a funeral photographer? And who knew there was even such a thing?

According to Sydney photographer John Slaytor, who specialises in photographing funerals, the demand for someone to document the ritual that marks the end of a life is on the rise.

Demand for funeral photographers is on the rise, John Slaytor says. Source: Supplied/John Slaytor.

When he tells people what he does for a living, "the reaction is 50-50," he says.

"I have a lot of people saying, 'do people really want that? I wouldn't like that', and then you have the people that just get it."

Funeral photographer John Slaytor. Source: Supplied.

After what he happily calls a "mid-life crisis," the self-taught photographer and former corporate businessman realised that he was no longer as enriched by photographing weddings as he was funerals.

That was 10 years ago, and he hasn't looked back.

On his business website, Slaytor has the motto "funerals are too important not to be photographed" emblazoned across the home page.

His goal, he says, is to lift the veil of mystery from death and show that there can be moments of beauty as well as sadness at funerals.

He also believes western society is closed to death in a way that non-western cultures are not.

A little girl is caught in a ray of light at a funeral. Source: Supplied/John Slaytor.

"I once went to Bhutan, a country that openly embraces the reality of death, where it's said the average person thinks about death six times a day, and the Bhutanese are probably the happiest people I've ever met," he says.

"I don't think our society is that happy, and part of that is to do with seeing death as a kind of failure.

"It's good to 'preserve' death in the same way that we preserve christenings, weddings, sometimes even births - to acknowledge its existence through photography."

Apart from photographing the funeral service, Slaytor also compiles a keepsake book which contains the photographs but also the eulogies, so that the words said about the deceased are not forgotten.

Slaytor says it's becoming increasingly common for him to be asked to photograph a funeral and create a book for the families of Alzheimers sufferers, who may not remember that their partner is actually deceased.

"Also, people who have had strokes and their short-term memory is gone, so the family is somehow wanting to bring that reality to them gently," he says.

Does Slaytor ever take the emotions from a funeral home with him?

"Because I'm a stranger to the family, not usually, but occasionally one cuts through," he admits.

"I did a Noongar funeral in Perth for a woman whose brother had died. He was well known in the Noongar community; a year later I had to photograph her funeral.

"That was very sad for me, because the year following her brother's death I'd got to know her quite well through designing the book."

While funerals are often sombre occasions, Slaytor says he sees many touching moments of love and kindness. Source: Supplied/John Slaytor

Slaytor says the best thing about his job is "focusing on the smallest of things - people being kind to each other."

"It's nice to see these tiny, tiny gestures that often go unnoticed," he says.

"The touch of a hand can be really meaningful to the person touched. And at funerals, people are so in the moment that they're oblivious to my presence. They're just focused on being human."

For Slaytor, children at funerals are like "emotional mirrors" who reflect the mood of the service.

It is often a single moment that captures the mood of a funeral. Source: Supplied/John Slaytor.

"Adults can wear a mask, whereas kids haven't learned to repress their emotions," he says.

Culturally, Slaytor says that most funerals are fundamentally the same, despite differences in the rituals.

"Generally, people are people," he says. "I've photographed a huge range of cultures, from Kenyans to Fijians to Chinese and from Catholic to Anglican.

"Some are more reserved, some are more expressive. But the emotions expressed are universal."