Some Photos Are Just Too Hard to Take

Last month, my mother was admitted to the hospital for cancer surgery. I decided to document the hospitalization, from admission to returning home.

One of my inspirations was Days With My Father, Phillip Toledano’s brave visual account of his father’s last days. I wasn’t just interested in coming up with a series of melodramatic photos; I wanted an accurate record of the event for my family.

A Solemn Journey

So the morning of the surgery, I packed a camera in my bag, and we began a solemn drive to the hospital.

On the way there, I thought about taking my camera out and documenting the drive itself. But something told me not to; we continued on to the hospital.

When my mom was admitted and shown to her ward, I was tempted to take the camera out and document the scene. But again, I didn’t.

When a hospital worker came to help her onto the gurney and wheel her to the operating room, I knew that it would make for good photographs. But upon seeing my mom lying there with tears in her eyes, my heart tightened. All I could do was hold her hand and tell her that everything would be OK.

Pictures in My Mind

A few hours later, she returned unconscious after surgery. I sat beside her, waiting for the anesthetic to wear off.

During this time, as she drifted in and out of consciousness, I wanted so badly to take my camera out and take a few photos of her. But I knew that she would never want to see these pictures — and would probably ask me to delete them from my camera.

I saw other pictures as I looked around the ward. I framed the various images in my mind. I composed them and visualized how they would look.

But again, I never removed my camera from the bag. The pictures in my mind were ones I simply didn’t have the heart to take.

Before I left, I was able to take a few pictures. Seven, to be exact — with my mobile phone.

The pictures don’t show much, and are of inferior quality. But looking at them now, they bring everything back to me: the smell of the ward, the feel of the cushion of the chair, the sickening sight of tubes running into my mom’s arms and nose.

My visual record, as haphazard and incomplete as it was, still had power.

What My Heart Said

So, am I a bad photographer for not following through on my original plans? I asked a photojournalist friend, and he assured me I did the right thing.

I would like to be able to grit my teeth and document an emotional journey like Toledano does in Days With My Father. But it’s probably not something I can accomplish, at least at this stage in my life and career.

My heart told me “no,” and I had to listen to it.

Photo © Leonard Goh

22 Responses to “Some Photos Are Just Too Hard to Take”

  1. Sometimes we need to step from behind our cameras, cease being observers and documentarians. Sometimes we need to join in the scene with our fellow beings. Compassion, respect, and love are noble human traits worthy of expression. You most assuredly did what was good, right, and lasting.

  2. It's called human decency, and sometimes we forget it in pursuit of "the image". You did right.

  3. Leonard, thanks for writing this experience. I just returned from a trip to Los Angeles with a very similar day with our youngest son. He had back surgery at LAC-USC Spine Clinic. I used my iPhone only a chosen few times. His surgery was successful, in fact, was released the next day. The half dozen pictures are also powerful and priceless. We listen to our hearts, and we are not alone. All the best,

  4. You can never go wrong listening to your heart!

  5. I documented my dads journey to his death on a blog. I am very glad I did so now, although it was hard and awkward at times. My dad was a photograoher and would have done the same thing if our roles would have been reversed. i would have never had done it if I didnt think he would want me not to. So, I wouldnt feel bad about ti.

  6. That's a great honest story. I fee for you.

  7. Just because we can take photos, doesn't mean we always should. Depends on the purpose.

    We send journalists to document the war/riots and other horrible situations, but they have a much greater purpose to humanity.

  8. being there for your close as you possibly could, both physically and emotionally (without the separation of the lens)...means everything...

  9. Sometimes the best pictures are the ones we never take with a camera. The ones that are memories, not photographs.

  10. I can relate to your story as a I have had a similar experience with my father who when was hospialized and has since passed away I knew I should be documenting the events as they unfolded but now I know was too close to what was going on and also know I needed to be there in a first person rather than seeking the protection and separation of being behind a camera. As Darlene has posted, you have to listen to your heart.

  11. Good for you, Len! it take great courage both "to shoot" and "not to shoot"

    I've reached the point where I'm only taking photos of things I want to shoot - I view it as a point of view that I've earned.

  12. Hey folks, I can't name everyone here, but thanks for the encouraging messages. My mom is very well now, and is undergoing chemotherapy. She's looking very healthy, and even the doctor said she don't look like a cancer patient. It's great to see so many nice messages!

  13. The photography is not always to take what you see it is sometimes to leave when you feel so.

  14. Great story, I think you did the right thing. Maybe you could find someone else that would be ok with you photographing the story later. Your passion would still be there and still be very real. The part of your story that touched me most was your love for your mother. That probably would have been lost in the shots you would have taken because you couldn't be there for your mother and shooting her story. If you find someone to let you shoot a similar story this experience will help you understand what to capture and what not to capture. Thank you!

  15. I agree with Darlene above: you can't go wrong following your heart. I had a similar impulse when my father had brain surgery earlier this year. I think I decided against it because I wanted to be present, not to use the camera as an emotion cage.

  16. You are a son first, a photographer second. Right decision.

  17. I too just ushered my mom through surgery to remove a cancerous growth and a subsequent 10 day hospital stay. I too loved the Days with my Father blog...brought me to tears. It didn't even occur to me to document my mom's surgery through photographs. However, after sending continuous text msg updates to my sister in another state, it dawned on my on about day 4 to send picture texts. I started doing that daily and loved showing her the progress. My mom is also doing very well now, but I don't think she would want to revisit the tough part. Fortunately she doesn't remember a lot about the awful tubes and things that occurred in the first couple of days. I'm glad I don't have pics to remind her and wish I could lose some of the memories too. Days with my Father was touching and slow growing and told a sweet story. Cancer (colon area) surgery is just plain rough, but since you are a photojournalist, maybe you have a stronger stomach than I. Have you asked your mom if she would have liked you to document??? Curious.

  18. The obvious question is would you have done the same thing had the person in question were not related to you personally and that you were doing it because it was part of your job?

  19. but you did record the event. your words convey very clearly the emotional scene and the intensity of the time. nicely done.

  20. Ok I'll try my best not to cry as I lost my mom nine years ago and sometimes the pain comes back with a sting reading such stories.

    You did the right thing because ultimately it is your choice when to photograph and when not to--not your photography peers' choice, contrary to popular belief.

    Being a support system to someone else accurately comes before fulfilling your own photographic vision in this case. I'm sure the mental images are there to stay as well and sometimes those are the most important.

    I agree with another poster--you DID document the event with your words. And since photography is your primary passion perhaps using words to tell the story was more comfortable to you. I know writers who take pictures of things they can't bring themselves to write about--same thing. A secondary craft did the job for them. There are times when pain is too hard to convey via image so I write. Sometimes it's good to push through pain to photograph. Sometimes it is not.

    I wish your family well in this time of pain. Be blessed.

  21. There are times when you HAVE to put your camera down. You're not a photographer at those times. You're there to help and provide comfort, not coverage... You did right.
    Just my two cents.

  22. You should have served two purposes during that difficult time: being a son and being a documentarist. Sure, there's no denying that those feelings would overcome you especially your subject is one very close to you but still you had a job to do -- to document the process/event for whichever noble reasons you had.

    Hopefully, your mother is fine now and if you did take those pictures you framed in mind, there are memories to browse -- a story that happened months ago.

    Or you could have just taken a picture of you holding her hand.

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