Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Taking Someone's Last Photograph

I recently read a blog post from another photographer that  spoke of his experience taking the photograph of an actor who had just found out his father had passed. It was a very powerful read and if you would like to read it, click  here.

So this brings me to a similar topic. There have been two moments in my life where I realized I was taking the “last photos” of a person. The last images that visually proved their existence. One happened a couple years back and I had this realization just before the shoot and the other happened last summer in Cuba and my realization of me being  the person’s last photographer came a few weeks ago when I heard they had passed away.

I'll tell you about the second instance.


So as some of you may know, I was born in Cuba. More specifically, La Habana. When I was born, I lived in The Capital for about a year but then moved to Sancti Spiritus with my mom and her family  after my dad had left on a raft to the U.S. (which leads to me being here, now a 16 year US citizen). 

When I lived in Sancti Spiritus  there were many people that took care of me, as some say, "it takes a village," which in this case it did. I was a handful for sure, but not in a bad way...I hope. Anyway, one of the villagers in this community of care takers was my babysitter Pura. She was the neighborhood babysitter of sorts: she would take care of children from around the neighborhood. I even had a close friend that I grew up with, recently  arrived from Cuba  who was also taken care  of by Pura when I was living there.

Pura was an old lady  even back then, but with her loving husband and her daughter she ran an awesome daycare.

Last Summer

So last summer I visited Cuba for my 5th time, but it was my first as an adult, and most importantly to this post, as a photographer. My main focus for this trip wasn't really to see family, it was on documenting the country where I was born with my eyes and my camera. I wanted to give my self some cultural definition regarding who I truly am, Cuban or American (I know now). 

During the entire trip, I had my camera, for every moment, every breath. 

Except for one.

When I went to visit Pura, we found her bedridden – she had fallen a couple months before and had broken her hip and due to her advanced age, she was not able to recover quickly. In the U.S., you would immediately go into surgery and, well, have a repaired hip. But due to the low amount of resources, Pura was not able to get her hip surgery. So she was literally perishing on her bed.

It was a huge shock to see my Pura in such a state. I say, "my Pura," because that's the only way I could describe how I thought of her when I saw her. I couldn't stop staring at her, I didn't want to because inside I honestly felt this would be the last time I saw her, and, unfortunately, I was right.

I had such a strong mixture of different emotions ranging from complete sadness,  to anger,  all accompanied with the strong desire to act. Which brings me to something I had mentioned previously: this was the one time I did not have my camera.

For the first time in my life, I was in a situation where all my photo-journalistic (to give it a name) senses where firing off...and I was camera-less. “Fuck me” was the only thing I could think of in that second.

But thank God I had my cellphone. And so, with the intent of capturing the last moments with Pura, I took these images.

After taking these images I sat down on the bed across from her own (where her husband sleeps) and just looked at the pictures. To see her on the screen of my phone almost made me cry because I realized that this really could mean the last time I would see her, the last memories of her. These pictures meant everything to me at that point, these pictures held similar weight as the first instance I had encountered taking someone's last photograph, but this time it was a "family" member.

Nothing in the world mattered to me more than getting at least one photograph that would accompany the image I will always hold in my heart of her. The images of her taking care of me as a small child along with the memories of her colorful backyard covered in banana trees and chicken pens  were "photographs" she gave me to remember her by. And I hope to use these images as the "photographs" to share with the world that represents a lady who was Pure.



  1. Wow.. I don't know what to say, Loved reading this story. Sorry for your lost.
    You are definitely captured some strong photographs.. I should done the same with my grandmother who just pasted away this summer (5 months ago). But I couldn't do it cause I didn't want to have a photo of how she looked in a bed hopeless and kept alive by machines at only 69 years of age..
    I appreciate you sharing your photos and the story of them. :D

    1. Thank you. And I'm sorry for your loss. It was a very tough decision to take the pics and even tougher was deciding to write this post and express it with the world. But I felt I needed to share who she was with others. And I'm happy to see people are being impacted my this post.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. I would advise photographers to always, always, always take the picture. Later you can decide what is right and should be treasured and what is wrong and can be deleted. I have the last pictures of my Grandma, my Dad and my Mom. They are hard for me to look at but I am so glad that I took them. Your photos are beautiful, Rafael.

    1. Thank you. And I will keep that in mind for future works.