How we honor the memory of those we have loved and lost through photographs with Barbara Bell Photography

In the Catholic Church, November 1st is all Saints’ Day and November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. For this second one, we honor the memory of those we have loved and lost. In Catholic school, we were taught this simple prayer: “May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.” My 8th grade English teacher, Sr. Anne and a favorite of mine, seemed to be praying for departed souls always. This prayer, she felt, was a simple one we would remember and recite.

Over the years, I have been asked how to pay tribute to others who have passed away, especially when it comes to photography. I have learned that each person we meet has different ideas, tastes, and ways of celebrating the people in their lives. In collaboration with my clients, we have always been able to find creative ways to make this work.

Recently, a client contact me to asked for some guidance regarding a photo. This wasn’t unusual, and as we began to talk, I realized the request itself required compassion, as well as technical knowledge. She had a digital image of some things that belonged to her son: boots and a baseball cap with a fishing hook attached to its bill. She also had questions: “Was it large enough? Could it be printed and framed?”

Together, she and I went through the three stages we use to help clients create artwork that is personal and authentic.

Follow Your Curiosity

Years ago, I used this phrase to help me figure out what to do next. There are so many choices in life, and if you can dream it, you can do it, so how do we choose from the hundreds of ideas each day? “Follow your curiosity” became my mantra, and I love that this client followed hers by reaching out and asking about the possibility of what to do with this digital image.

Begin with the End in Mind

The ideas of what to do with a beloved image are limitless, so I always like to ask clients to begin with the end in mind. Where do we want to see this image and how often? Is it a few times a year at the holidays, an important anniversary, or family visits? Is this an image you want framed and sitting on your desk so that you can see it every day? The answers to these questions help us to imagine what we want and how we want to engage with personal artwork.

My client knew that she wanted to frame and hang this on a wall so that it looked like a piece of art to all who saw it. To the family, though, it was so much more. It was a reminder of their son and brother who had passed away earlier this year. “He was a country boy at heart,” said his sister.

Beginning with the end in mind meant we knew we were going to frame this and to hang on a wall. Now, the questions: which room? Which wall? By putting the image into software, we could add a mat and a frame and then see what size made sense. Too big, too small, and just right are worth seeing because we, as the viewer, immediately know what we like and what fits our personal aesthetic. Having an idea and then seeing a prototype allows us to decide what works and what doesn’t.

Leverage the Help

This is a phrase that my husband and I adopted as we started the year. We usually make a list of things we want to do or accomplish in the year, and the last item we wrote down was, “Leverage the help.” To be honest, I don’t think we realized its significance when we wrote the phrase on that lined sheet of paper. We just knew that we were two people who wanted to do more than we had capacity for. “Leverage the help” reminded us it was okay to ask for help. It was okay to ask questions and understand where we wanted our focus during these extraordinary times.

Once we knew the size of the image we wanted to frame and where to hang it, we could start to look at the details. Which frame? What color? How ornate? How simple? What adds to the overall image? What detracts? I love this part of building artwork because it’s like hunting through the box of jigsaw puzzle pieces to find the exact right one. Pick it up, look at the dimensions and color, place it down on the table, and it fits within the bigger picture of what we are building.

When I went to see my framer with the final image and with the client’s choice, he shared a great tidbit with me when it came to choosing a mat. When you have a black and white image or an image with a white dress (think wedding portraits, think First Communion dresses), the white you choose for a mat has to be chosen carefully.

Too white? Too bright? Does it add to or take away from the main image and the focus of the artwork? Maybe a toned down white would be a better choice? It’s easy to let decision fatigue creep in here, and this is why I go to this framer. He educates me on what makes a great framed and matted piece. He knows his area of specialty, and he helps me to bring the best possible finished work to my clients. Win-Win!

A Final Word on the Pickup and Delivery

When I returned to pick up the finished pieces that I had brought in, I lifted the smaller 11x14s from a recent wedding to bring to my car. I stopped and asked the woman who was helping me where the larger piece was, and she pointed behind me. I turned, and it took my breath away. There against the wall stood a boy’s boots and his fishing cap, memorialized in the black and white photograph, framed and ready to hang on the wall. The beauty of the final piece was simple and elegant. We had done it. We preserved the memory of a young man who had been well-loved and shared his legacy in this personal artwork.

When I delivered the piece to the sibling who would share it with mom, I asked her to close her eyes as I took it out of my car. When I asked her to open them, she squealed with delight. “It’s so him!” I knew at that moment that her mom and I had created a piece that the whole family could enjoy.

I then talked about how we could place it in the car, and how we would cover it for transport. It is then that I realized she had gone quiet. I looked at her as she looked at the framed piece I was still holding in my hands. I saw her clamped jaw, and the tears she was struggling to keep back, and I quietly whispered, “I am so sorry. For your loss and for how difficult this must be.”

When I deliver artwork, it’s often a celebration. In this moment, I was reminded to also leave some quiet space for those who are dearly departed. It is in that moment that our hearts fill up and overflow with the memories of the people we have loved.

In the end, my client shared with me that she wasn’t sure how hard this would be on her. The grief was still new as barely 6 months had gone by from the time of her son’s death to when she reached out to me. The artwork was perfect, she said, and it brought her tremendous peace. She felt as though she had brought her son home.

As photographers, we are historians and archivists, and we know that people place their trust us. At Barbara Bell Photography, we are honored to create personal artwork in memory of those we have loved.


Barbara Bell Photography creates heirloom photographs to inspire families to share their memories near Chapel Hill, NC.