The Death Letter Project
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John Slaytor | Funeral Photographer

My photographic practice focusses on the smallest of kind gestures. So I don't think I am interested in death per se, but I am interested in photographing compassion and I've found that it's abundant at funerals: moments of genuine empathy and kindness that I haven't witnessed so abundantly at any other family ritual I've photographed such as weddings or christenings. 

At funerals I am able to find and focus on the subtlest of gestures that show openness and kindness. A son at his father's funeral touches the shoulder of an old man slumped forward in his seat; a daughter reaches for her mother's arm at the graveside.

I’m aware that with this focus I'll never photograph 'Great Moments in History', but that doesn’t matter to me: when I am able to capture compassion I feel my photographic work is meaningful. In contrast I regard portrayals of death in mainstream media as meaningless since they are either voyeuristically violent or overtly sentimental; genuine compassion in the face of death - where we're being kind to one another - isn’t visible, or at least isn’t dwelt upon.

To those who reject my photography (a common response is “I wouldn’t want photos of me crying at a funeral”) I think that when people are experiencing ‘being in the moment’, they feel they are exposed and unprotected and it is this vulnerability they don’t want revealed.

But why would a person want to conceal their humanity?

In any event, at funerals I am witness to far more than grief. At my first funeral photography engagement, when I was asked to photograph the funeral of a friend's uncle, I expected a weeping widow. In reality, the widow was gracious and comforted those around her. I have since learned never to have preconceived notions about any funeral I photograph. They are all so different; there is so much texture and such a range of emotions and it's these along with the accompanying gestures that I want to photograph. 

What is it about funerals that brings out this tenderness?

It may be when we contemplate our own mortality we accept that how we connect with each other as humans is ultimately what matters in contrast to the meaningless materiality in which we live where superficiality is celebrated and cruelty admired. Whatever the reason, funerals remind me of what matters.

Editor's note: John Slaytor is a specialist funeral photographer whose work is highly regarded for its sensitivity, emotion, and documentation of rare and poignant moments in our social history. His work is archived in several collections including The State Library of NSW. Further info...

The Death Letter Project welcomes your comments and feedback. Please feel free to leave a comment on our Facebook page or alternatively submit a message below.

  • Gold - toni_reilly (Instagram)
  • This project allows us to consider and observe death in ways that are unique to all who come in contact or are touched by it. Each perspective being validly individual. - Rosada Hayes (Facebook)
  • Makes you realise you should accept an inviation to a funeral. I have on the past often said no - that may change now. - Fern Smith (Facebook)
  • John Slaytor has summarised the essence of human behaviour, often seen at funerals, which is compassion and tenderness. It is when people stop focusing on all the busyness and worry in their lives in order to focus on the present moment to honour a relative or friend. I really enjoyed this letter. Another beautiful image, Tina. - Helen Dunne (Facebook)
  • I really wanted to photograph my dads funeral but it’s not the done thing and I didn’t want to risk offending anyone. In the end I took a few photos of the gathering after it but they never captured the compassion as I didn’t photograph the people (in case I upset them). I agree with John that there are such tender and truthful moments at a funeral, it would be nice to capture them. Great letter, thanks! - Luna Louise Harrison (Facebook)