Theatre director, one time Avon lady and founder of the Red Hat Society Chapter Wilma Jensen was aware of her mild vainness from the start. The fixation with looking her best was a quality she shared with her daughters too.
Erika Bender, her daughter said, “We know we look better with our eyeliner on. That’s how we roll.”
This remained true for Jensen’s last moments as well.
Immortalising Last Moments
A long time breast cancer survivor, Wilma was 70 by the time her cancer metastasized. It was a few days before Christmas in 2014 that she went into hospice care in her hometown of Beloit, Wis.
Her family was by her side and they were asked if they would want a photographer to capture some of their last hours together.
Erika Bender, initially skeptical of the affair, with regards to possible intrusion, soon saw how her mother, never camera-shy, rising to the occasion, putting on make-up to “be pretty”.
‘Part Of Life’
Amanda Reseburg, a professional photographer from Beloit, arrived and set to work posing Wilma and her family and capturing candid interactions too.
She said, “I know some people think taking hospice pictures is morbid, but the dying process is a part of life that deserves to be seen and celebrated”.
The 37-year old, who is used to clicking photographs at weddings and portraits of high school seniors, is really pulled out of her comfort zone when clicking pictures of the elderly and infirm.
Grandmother’s Final Days
Reseburg found her gift through a lost opportunity in her own life. Her own grandmother dies in a hospice care facility and she later realized how she had not taken a single photograph of their last moments together.
“I realized that I missed something that would have been precious to us”, she said.
That was when she started volunteering her services to hospice patients. In the past eight years, she has had sessions with a lot of people nearing their ends.
And she is not alone in her endeavor either; many photographers from all over the country have expanded their businesses to include terminal patients.
“Photography is a tool that can help people in their grief journey,” maintains Shannon MacFarlane of Tacoma, Wash., who has worked exclusively as a “bereavement photographer” since 2013.
With hospice cases, she tries to include the family and asks them to revisit memories so that she can focus on the expressions.
“This is a time when you can see the anguish and heartache, those painful emotions that come from a place of love,” she said. “You can see the life and relationships they’ve shared. There are moments of pure radiance.”
MacFarlane pays multiple visits and also brings audio recording gear to collect stories, memories and end-of-life wisdom. She later transcribes those in accompaniment of the photographs to create personalized books for the families.
“These portraits are not the ones you want on your wall or mantle. They come together in a story format that people can keep and return to,” she said.
A Mind-set Changing
With hi-tech cameras attached to every cellphone in the market, photography is everywhere. Also hence, it is a high time people stop cringing about deathbed photography.
Jensen died peacefully four days after her pictures were taken. Her family had the final solo portrait of Jensen enlarged for her funeral. Looking straight ahead at the camera, Wilma is wearing a broad smile and impeccably straight eye-liner.
The pictures still comfort Erika.
“I have a picture of me kissing her, that was one of the last times I got to do that. I was looking at it again yesterday,” Bender said through tears.
“It was the worst time of my life, but those pictures don’t show that; they show a family together. And my mother looks beautiful. She looks like the angel she was on earth, and the angel she is now,” Bender said.
Tips For The Photographers
1. Respect the patient’s wishes
2. Get everyone on board
3. Set the stage
4. Consider monochrome photographs
5. Include meaningful moments of the patient’s life
6. Respect emotions and boundaries
7. Remember it’s not just memories.