Surrender: Photographing Emotion

Photogrief / Photogrief : Eleanor Haley

by Julie M Terrill

At the time that I signed up for Serendipity, a retreat on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with fellow creatives, my Dashing Groom had entered remission and our world sparkled with possibilities. Four months later I arrived at the retreat enveloped in a fog of uncertainty and grief. Not only had my beloved, Marc, passed away but our son’s non-custodial mother came to collect him and his belongings just days later.

I had not written or even picked up my camera in my grief, unsure if I still could be categorized as an artist. Quite torn, I contemplated skipping the retreat. “Everyone is there to have a good time. Nobody wants to be around someone who is crying.” My inner dialogue was soon quieted by the amazing women who run the event and I agreed to go. But the deal I made with myself had stipulations…

  1. No crying.
  2. No talking about Marc, which would likely lead to a violation of rule #1.
  3. To be safe, no talking at all unless asked a direct question, as not answering would be rude.
  4. No crying – it warrants repeating.

I had cried a little, but not wept. I felt I had to be strong for our kids and Marc’s parents. I thought I had stifled my emotions well enough that I was as okay as I was going to get. Within the first 10 minutes of the first workshop I was in jeopardy of violating all of my aforementioned rules. Armed with a fresh new journal and pen, I entered the workshop space and our first prompt was, “In my eyes I am _______.” Swiss Cheese… I am swiss cheese. I am not a wife. I am not even the mother of my son. I am a collection of holes, voids that have taken over what used to be me.

“Ok…,” I thought, “I can do this” and then we were asked to share our answers. Without realizing, I was literally holding my breath to push down the tears, the feelings, the pain. I was vaguely aware of being urged to breathe and shook my head in response, pushing harder. If I let myself cry I didn’t know if I would be able to stop. We took a break and were given instructions to create a photograph of “where you are emotionally.”

Leaving the workshop for the privacy of my bedroom I stepped into the shower and cried, allowing myself to weep for the first time, and realized this would be my photo. Using a remote shutter release I captured my surrender to tears, grief, vulnerability and sheer exhaustion. Finally, I allowed the tears to give way to an unfamiliar calm and peace. I reached for my journal and penned “Grief is a veil, some days so translucent that I can pretend it does not exist at all. Others it is a leaden burka that is oppressive, threatening to weigh me down, pull me under and engulf me. Today I wear a veil of tears, and through it I can see healing. “

Surrender became the cornerstone of my subsequent body of work based on healing through self-portraiture.

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3 Comments on "Surrender: Photographing Emotion"

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  1. Bridget  June 3, 2016 at 9:44 pm Reply

    To be able to show emotion during grief is something that should be let out. It’s apart of letting go the pain that sits inside of you. The tears maybe raw but to know the spirit of the loved one is there wiping your tears for you. Everyday is a battle for me and my grief. Losing someone who meant a lot to me in my life. It changed me and there always the first thought I have when my day begins and ends.

  2. Michele Benyo  May 19, 2016 at 4:34 pm Reply

    Wonderful, Julie . . . Thank you for sharing your description of grief as a veil – or a burka. My son died 16 years ago. Finally I am embarking into my service to help other families whose young children die and leave behind siblings to grow up without them . . . and I am finding fresh grief. I continue to observe my own grief with such wonder, never able to leave it behind (not that I want to) and always discovering new facets. Yes, sometimes it is healing, and still, sometimes it is suffocating. Thank you for sharing your healing. I wish you joy in the midst of remembering.

  3. Jimmy Edmonds  May 19, 2016 at 4:13 pm Reply

    Dear Julie

    Thank you for sharing one of the most intimate moments of your grief – you tell a wonderful story about the power of tears (I don’t cry very much) and the release that can come from allowing them to flow – the lines you write about the veil of tears resonates strongly and conjures a powerful image of a world obscured by your grief. If we are allowed to comment on your photo, I think it really doesn’t do justice to this idea, evocative and heart rending though it is I’m not sure you needed to put yourself in the picture – would not an image taken through the veil have conveyed your feelings a little better –

    but thank you anyway – the process of taking and sharing photographs about our deepest thoughts is courageous and (I have found) liberating

    best wishes


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