Exploring Grief Through Photography: Photographing Emotion and Mood

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

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When dealing with grief, you should use every tool in your toolbox. You probably already rely on your tools of rational and emotional intellect to learn about yourself and your experiences; but what other instruments do you have to help heal? Writing, supporting, reading, watching, listening, meditation, humor, advocacy, art, etc. Do any of these jive with you?

All tools are good, but if you have any creative leanings or desires, I urge you to indulge them in your dealings with grief. Not only does creative expression have the capacity to connect and communicate, but research has suggested it also increases engagement, catharsis, distraction, positive emotions and meaning-making. So, if your skills include drawing, painting, sculpting, or writing prose, then I hope you're already using the talents bestowed on you. The rest of us will be over here drawing stick figures.

me so sad cartoon

I'm kidding though because here's the thing: You don't need talent to use art as a coping skill, as long as you're open to trying something new and willing to accept your results might be ugly not be beautiful. Ultimately, results don't matter. Whether your final product is abstract, literal, or stick figure-y, we believe there is healing power in mere contemplation and creation of a work of art.

Specifically, we like using photography to deal with grief because it's versatile, accessible, and easy to use.  Most of you have practice with photography and most of you have access to a camera.  We've previously blogged about the many ways you can use photography to deal with grief and today we want to expand even further by talking about photographing emotion and mood.


We dedicated a whole post to using self-portraits to express emotion because the self-portrait is the most obvious way to photograph your feelings. Unfortunately, it's also challenging and apt to make you feel vulnerable (although I do count finding the courage to be vulnerable as a positive!). Just remember: You don't have to show anyone your photos if you're embarrassed with the outcome. Taking the portrait is healing in and of itself, and you never know what you'll discover in the process.

Take this first photo for example. Before taking it, I had been in a dark mood. The winter has made me feel cooped up and despondent, and I had just woken up to another cold grey day. I intended to take a photo expressing my bad mood but, while in the process, my daughters came in the room. The next thing I knew, we were snuggling up taking photos—and quickly my outlook turned from grave to gratitude.

sad and despondent
snuggling with my girls on a cold winter day

Landscape and Atmosphere

Now that the moody self-portraits are out of the way, there are a number of other ways to capture emotion in a photograph. These methods require you to pay attention to your surroundings and identify environmental elements you relate to.

First, let's think broadly. Look out your window and ask yourself this weird question:

If my mood determined the weather, what would it look like outside?

On those days when your mood is in perfect harmony with the atmosphere, photograph it.

sad and dark atmosphere
barn in frost

If you don't feel confident in your ability to capture a great landscape photo, check out this great article by photographytalk.com on The Best Landscape Photography Focus Technique for some wonderful tips.

Symbolic Representations

Another way to express mood and emotion in photography is through symbolic representation. You may identify with something metaphorically, you may just happen to notice someone or something personifies how you feel, or perhaps you decide to create your own scene.

Sometimes a photograph's symbolism will be obvious... and sometimes the meaning will be more abstract, especially when it's the representation of something that is personally meaningful to you. Either outcome is okay. It's common for the viewer to find meaning in a work other than what was originally intended. Here are a few different approaches:

...pretty literal...

visiting a loved one's grave

...a little less obvious...

mothers day purple flowers
(The title, 'Mother's Day Flowers', makes it more transparent)

...esoteric and weird...

empty chair

...a semi-orchestrated scene (also kind of weird)...

child sitting on toilet glancing outside window

Found this interesting? We have a ton of articles about photographing symbols for you to read:

For more on creative coping, check out this section of our blog.

How do you express emotion and mood? Share your work with us below or on social media. Also, don't forget to subscribe!

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

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3 Comments on "Exploring Grief Through Photography: Photographing Emotion and Mood"

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  1. Litsa  June 12, 2014 at 10:04 pm Reply

    Hey Jim, sorry this comment somehow feel through the cracks! We’d love a subscription – our email is whatsyourgrief@gmail.com

  2. Mira  June 7, 2014 at 4:13 am Reply

    Weird yet so candid. What a great photography.

  3. Jim Miller  March 6, 2014 at 12:20 pm Reply

    I’ve been using photography as an avenue to get at grief’s expressions for almost 25 years. Recent examples are on my blog entitled grief helps.com I’ve also created a resource called “100 Healing Messages for Your Grief” which uses nature photography throughout on 100 short videos. I’d be happy to enter a complimentary subscription in your name if you’d like.

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