For the final part of this series, I want to talk about some of the ethical issues surrounding photographing cemeteries. People have a lot of differing opinions when it comes to visiting cemeteries, and photography, or any other activity that is not quite related to the purpose of the cemetery (such as visiting a particular burial site) also results in divided views. On the one hand, there are cemeteries that often hold tours, with or without a guide dressed in costume, show movies (like Hollywood Forever Cemetery), have it as a venue for weddings, and totally encourage visitors to use the space as it was originally intended, as is the case with many garden cemeteries. On the other hand, some cemeteries completely prohibit, or highly discourage, photography of any kind. Most, I think, are somewhere in the middle.
The thing to remember about most cemeteries (and other memorial sites) is that they are most likely run by a private organization, and they absolutely have the right to determine the rules and guidelines concerning the property. If they have a strict no photo policy, the best thing to do is to abide by it. The worst thing a person could do is go into any cemetery feeling they have the “right” to photograph it, no matter what the rules. Those rules are there for a reason. If you are particularly intent on photographing a particular monument, the best thing to do would be to ask permission from the office (if there is one, and if someone is manning it). Sometimes this can be difficult though, if you are in another country and cannot speak the language. In some cases you may have inadvertently broken the rules because you did not not any signs on your way in (this has happened to me on occasion since I do not always go through the main entrance, and/or go straight along the walls and not up the middle, where many signs tend to be). In those cases, it’s up to you to decide how you want to proceed (keep the photos or delete them). In many cases however, unless you publish the photos (that includes on blogs or other SNS sites), no one would ever know. In terms of my own photography, there are a few personal guidelines that I follow, which I think would be reasonable to most.
- Be respectful: if there are mourners present anywhere around you, don’t photograph. Either move on to another area of the cemetery and come back later, or just move on entirely. A cemetery is a place of solace for the mourners, no matter how old or recent the death, and it’s important to remember that. Just think how you would feel if you were visiting a grave of someone close to you and some thoughtless person was taking pictures all around you. It reminds me of some of the images of Varanasi in India – tourists go there and photograph the burning ghats like it’s a spectacle put on for their entertainment, but those are real funerals of real people with family and friends present. Regardless of how close or far you are from the culture of the cemetery you are visiting, respect is always appreciated.
- Be aware of your surroundings: try to avoid stepping on graves, leaning or otherwise touching headstones, statues, or other memorials, and pay attention to the flora around you as well. You don’t want to step on flowers or break off tree branches. That said, if something is in the way (for example, a fallen branch in the middle of the path) I think it’s more than appropriate to move it out of the way to make the area clear for others. Similarly, if you notice damage to a stone, or a hole in the ground, or any kind of vandalism, it’s worth reporting it to the cemetery office. They usually have limited staff and may not not be aware of issues in the grounds. In these cases I believe cemetery staff are grateful for visitors (including photographers) since they can be an extra set of eyes for them.
- Avoid photographing names, and/or more recent memorials. This seems to be quite popular with some people, but I do know that cemeteries frown on this as it may upset family members or others who were close to the deceased. Because of this, generally speaking I avoid photographing any newer monuments, as these deaths are within living memory of those still alive, in some cases very recently. The exception to this (for me anyway) are the graves or memorials to famous or well-known people. Sometimes photographing names can’t be helped, with the way the monument is constructed, but I try to do what I can to avoid it. Similarly, even though I’m fascinated by the images on headstones (photos to engravings) of the people buried, I usually don’t photograph them either, although I personally think that would an amazing theme for someone to focus on.
- Limit the selfies, or don’t take them at all. Now, I understand the want to photograph yourself (or others) in front of a particular memorial, but this only really makes sense to me if it’s someone you know, or someone particularly famous. In fact, I know of some cemeteries that forbid photography unless you are photographing the memorial of a loved one. On the other hand, I recently saw an exhibit about Van Gogh and Japan, and after he died some Japanese went to France and photographed themselves in front of his gravesite. So this is certainly not anything new. That said, I’ve also seen people taking selfies of themselves, positioning themselves in different ways on or around different monuments, again and again (in Pere Lachaise this is particularly the case). I just don’t understand it. Just like it is completely inappropriate to take selfies in places of mass deaths (like Auschwitz), a cemetery is not that far removed from that either. You may not think it’s a big deal, but you may be photographing yourself in front of monuments that have deeper meanings that you are not aware of. Since you are so focused on yourself, you may end up damaging the memorials around you. Again, this links back to the first point, be respectful.
- I guess connected to this is the fact that you shouldn’t use the cemetery as a backdrop to a portrait shoot (without permission), as I’ve seen some people (dressed in black) do this on occasion. It may be allowed, but make sure you get permission from the office first.
- Finally, and this is more of a safety issue, it’s well worth doing a little research about the cemetery you are going to and making sure that it is a safe place to visit. In some cases it may literally be because some or most of the grounds are not safe, due to the ground, the weeds, the condition of the stones, wildlife, etc.; in others it may be that there is a chance of getting mugged or assaulted. I believe that’s why visiting St Louis #1 in New Orleans has to be done by guided tour. And it should go without saying that you need to check when the closing times are to the cemetery, and make sure you are near the main entrance near closing time, as side entrances may close even earlier. The last thing you want is to be locked into a cemetery at night. I recently visited Montjuic in Barcelona, which is a large, amazing cemetery on a hillside. But there are no straight paths up or down the mountain, which often means a lot of zigzagging/backtracking. I nearly got locked in because I hadn’t properly anticipated how long it would take for me to get back down the mountain back to the entrance. Generally speaking, this is why I often start on the edges and work my way towards the middle. If it’s getting near closing time, then I’m usually quite close to the entrance by the time I finish exploring.
These are just a few of my personal observations when it comes to exploring and photographing cemeteries. Of course, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every place, so it’s best to use your judgement and discretion about what is right to do when you are in one. If you’re not sure, it’s always best to ask at the office (if there is one, and if it is staffed and open), if not, just ask yourself how you would feel if someone was going to do the same thing you were going to do. If you wouldn’t like someone posing over your grave for a selfie, then don’t do it to others. That said, for those that are a bit wary of visiting cemeteries, just know that it’s more popular than you think it is (I can’t tell you how many times people tell me that they also like visiting cemeteries, when I tell them about this blog). Overall, it’s a wonderful way to get to know local culture and history, and is often a calm and relaxing activity.