Photographing Elderly Parents, the ethics of

Permission to take and use these photographs was essential from the outset. That required ensuring that my elderly parents understood how my images might be used – publicly on blogs and perhaps in print.

To begin with I showed them examples of what I’d taken but subsequently they trusted me with the rest. 

It was understood that my camera would be a ‘fourth person’ in the room. There is nothing discreet about a Canon 6d body with 24 – 70mm f2.8 lens (sometimes with a speed light attached too). And with a 70 – 200mm f2.8 lens, well that just takes over the party. A mirrorless system would of course have been easier to handle but my budget doesn’t stretch to replacing all my gear AND most importantly I wanted Mum and Dad to always know when my camera was in use – to allow them the opportunity to stop and request a moment not be recorded. (The top photo taken while they were unpacking into their new apartment – they had long forgotten that I had a camera in hand)

Picking up dinner after a visit to the Optometrist

I spent time discussing the differences between formal, posed portraits and documentary photography. How I’d be capturing my parents living in the now because these were to be my memories to take back to New Zealand with me. I wouldn’t be interrupting their flow or shifting their furnishings around or setting up scenes or requesting they wore particular clothing.

Mum getting used to my mouse to look at my photo folders
Every day was washing day

Logistically getting images was a challenge in the small space that is their apartment. So some of my images get up really close and personal. Lighting was often less than ideal, either dull days or with artificial overhead. The onus was on me to find a position – be it lying on the floor; standing on a stool or contorting my body so that I got my composition in camera and excluded distractions.

It was at times a real challenge to resist the urge to say “just move over here to better light” or to avoid knocking one of them over as I raced to get a shot. 

Sometimes the settings were wrong – so an out of focus image resulted or an opportunity was missed entirely but taking photos in manual mode was a given for the complete control over depth of field and consistency of white balance and exposure it allows within a series. And, although I take RAW images for maximum post processing ability, some colour casts cannot be rectified. That’s real life – we cannot perfect it all.

At all times I was conscious of preserving their dignity and my priority while living with them was to spend unhurried time; assist when necessary and ensure their safety above the taking of photographs. Some images are conceptual like that below, taken when my Dad was in hospital. (Mum simply did not get why I would take a photo of an empty chair. Some forms of communication just get lost between the ages. Already there’s a gap between me and the younger generation. Multiple selfies?!)

Letters from the year dot, all carefully filed away

What I hadn’t realised in those first few weeks was that circumstances would lead to me making three more extended trips in short succession. So what started as some images for my memory bank became an extensive archive which includes digitised family albums; copious notes on family history; old letters; diary entries; blogs and research notes on relevant subjects.

Weekly letters to her sister in England
Phone call to say her brother in England had died

Expressions in portrait photography are important to me. It’s hard though to know where to draw the line. Should I have been photographing Mum through the window while she was taking the above call? One example of an ethical dilemma when taking true life images.

I’m astonished that three years have passed and had imagined by now to be an orphan. Happily I am not. Sadly the virus keeps me from further trips. Mum’s breathing is so bad she can barely talk so phone calls no longer happen. Instead I write and share some of my blogs. Dad is now blind so he cannot see my work.

Sometimes I send off a question to clarify a fact but the response now is often ‘I can’t remember’. My task henceforth is to appreciate the time we had together and weave the family facts I’ve gathered with personal experiences and research, to re-create moments of time past that might resonate with others. 

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