Snapshots: Photographs to Heal the Heart

In India with Vic cradling his camera

In India with Vic cradling his camera

Vic got serious about photography in 1990 after a borrowed camera malfunctioned and there were no photos of our first trip to India. In his usual style, my husband turned aggravation into action. He bought a high quality Nikon camera and signed up for a summer school photography class at Cornell. He spent afternoons learning about photography, shooting rolls of film, experimenting with images, and developing negatives.

img072“Cameraman,” the Indian children called to him on our second trip to India in 1993. They chased him down dusty streets as we walked to the Sankara Mutt or Temple where we’d come to receive blessings from the ninety-eight-year-old sage. Vic wore dark sunglasses and a long Indian skirt or dhoti with his camera hanging around his neck or cradled on his arm. The barefoot children shrieked and tugged at his skirt.

“Ca-ma-rah-man, take picture of me. Ca-ma-rah-man. Ca-ma-rah-man. What is your native place, Camarahman?”

“Delhi,” Vic said with a grin. He looked Indian enough to get away with it.

img071Vic wandered through the morning streets and took photos of women creating chalk mandalas or kolams on their doorsteps to bless their homes, beggars setting up camp by the road, sadhus or holy men at temples, cows on the street and at the ashram, and mothers holding children or rushing to market. Occasionally he broke the Temple rules and snapped a photo of the ancient sage. He didn’t get caught.

Sankaracharya, India, 1993

Sankaracharya, India, 1993

“I need to take photos, too,” I said a few years later. I’d once been the family photographer, but Vic’s slide camera was heavy and complicated. I bought an inexpensive digital point-and-shoot which we both used to take family photos. This was the camera I used during Vic’s illness.

“I’d love to have a quality digital camera,” Vic said to our son David the last summer he felt well enough to care about photography.

“So buy one, Dad,” David said.

Vic and a saddhu, India, 1994

Vic and a saddhu, India, 1994

“I won’t live long enough to use it,” Vic said.

“You’re being negative,” David said. “Buy yourself a new camera.”

“OK,” Vic said. “I’ll leave it to you when I die.”

Vic carried his new camera everywhere that summer. He took a series of photos of us, one of which became the cover of my book.

After Vic’s death, I gladly gave the fancy camera to David and tucked my small camera in my pocket. I looked for the good things life offered when everything felt impermanent and unsure. I counted on beauty to counter the downward pull of grief. I photographed wildflowers and butterflies, my dog and sunsets at Seneca Lake. I snapped pictures of friends and my sons.

Last year, my family gave me a new Sony Cybershot with improved focus and zoom. All the better to draw me out of sorrow into Technicolor life.


Looking east after an April shower



What creative activities help you deal with grief or loss? Some people make photo albums or quilts from their loved one’s clothing. I painted my dreams, created rituals, and wrote stories. For other posts on creativity and grief, see Finding Balance during Grief or Writing through the Rough Spots: Healing through Telling Our Stories.



  1. No wonder you love this guy, what a wit – and camera man!

    • Yup. I miss the ca-ma-rah-man and his fun. On our first trip to India, we lost our luggage and had only winter clothes in 90 degree weather. In desperation, my husband and a friend bought too small Indian shirts and wore dhottis. Most Hindus at the ashram wore them and when you’re meditating many hours a day, they are comfortable. On every other trip to South India, Vic wore his dhotti. Versatile because they can be hitched up to be knee length and one size fits all, but a guy has to get the hang of wrapping it so it doesn’t fall off.

  2. This is so lovely Elaine thank you. The photographs are lovely too. Was David saying his to Dad about not being negative re getting a new digital camera part of the developing story of photographs? I ask because I was writing something about the negative/x-ray of a photo the other day and how it is developed, in the dark room – old style.

    I can’t comment on working my way through grief in a creative manner as this has not yet occurred in my life but I do contemplate it, death, life and all the catastrophes in between. I would continue writing and painting dreams that stood out and demanded my attention. I may travel more, I don’t know .. or be very still and quiet for a while ..

    The rainbow reminds me of God’s covenant with Noah. I love rainbows and have managed to capture a few on my digital camera and even on my cell phone. Yours is particularly striking! Lovely too re: looking east!

    • I didn’t think of that way of interpreting the word negative, Susan, but why not? Vic didn’t continue developing his own film for long. In this reference, he was feeling well, and our son was telling him not to be negative about the long-term situation (incurable lymphoma that had been pushed back temporarily with chemo and a stem cell transplant).

      I didn’t want to travel much after Vic died and I’m still attached to home. I wrote. I dreamed most nights, usually about Vic. I painted my dreams, worked on them with a therapist, and lived them. I spent a huge amount of time in nature, with poetry, and working with descent myths such as Inanna, Orpheus, and the Egyptian Goddesses. I saw friends most days, but chose to spend a huge amount of time alone. I don’t think we know what we’ll do until we get there.

      Here’s to looking east to the new day. You are one busy blogger, nearing the end of the alphabet.

      • Thanks Elaine – and just to say that that I have not not experienced grief, I don’t know why I was somewhat dismissive of that. Both parents have died and that was sad, especially my father’s suicide. And there are other kinds of griefs we face on a daily basis, the state of the world, concern about a family member and his very dark depression …

        • Sounds like you’ve had your share and more. Speaking of what we experience in grief, at the worst times with Vic, I thought about people with incurable cancer in the slums of Haiti with no clean water and no medical care. I thought of women coming across the ocean in slave ships with dying children and no way to help them. I always knew my situation was personally heartbreaking, but not tragic in the way life can be. Not denying the pain, but keeping perspective.

          • Thank you Elaine … I think of those things too, the poverty in the world, illness, trying to escape authoritarian regimes, women and children and the elderly being the collateral damage of war as Madeleine Allbright said so many years ago. One of the most shocking statements I’ve ever heard …
            Keep perspective … thank you.

          • The people in power often seem clueless about the suffering they cause. Statements like Madeleine Albright’s keep everything at a distance.

  3. Beautiful job! You got that out right quick and figured out a way so we could hear the street pronunciation of cameraman.

    • Hi Dennis. It was already written and posted when we took a walk Monday afternoon. Monday evening, I substituted the rainbow photo for a sunset I had at the end of the piece. What a rainbow!
      Hello to Ca-ma-rah-man, wherever you are.

  4. Loved seeing these pictures and imagining the two of you traveling in India together, Elaine.

    One of the pieces of advice elders offer young people in the book 30 Lessons for Living, is to travel. Travel while you can. Travel as much as you can.

    You and Vic did this and now you have memories, whether or not they were “captured,” and you can reflect on the value of cameras for the grieving.

    • We went to India three times, Shirley. Photos are a mix of trips, some taken by others on our first trip. We spent time in many places in Europe, including a few trips to Italy. Also Taiwan where I had a life-transforming experience at a Chan Buddhist monastery with 400 nuns and many pilgrims. I still haven’t made it to Japan. Vic loved an adventure, a good balance to my homing tendencies. Much gratitude for a well-lived life. Thanks for your reflections.

  5. So that’s how you take all your lovely photos? 🙂 I’m glad Vic got the camera and you guys had a second chance at photographing India.

    • Debby, the first few years after Vic died, I prowled around in the woods and fields looking for some small beautiful thing. It became a habit. Vic loved photography once he got into it and my home is filled with beautiful portraits he took, especially in India.

  6. So great that you two got to go to India and travel like you did. I can relate to the camera thing although I hated cameras and taking photographs until after my daughter died. Isn’t it sweet to have those photos now? Limited editions. There won’t be more photos of our beloveds. So it’s a big deal when a friend or relative comes up with one I haven’t seen before. Cheers!

    • I didn’t take lots of photographs (except for family history) until after Vic died. Photography was a surprising result of grief. Digital photography makes it easy to take and delete tons of photos even if they might be lousy.
      No more photos of our beloveds. I keep aging while Vic stays stuck in memory. Right now I have a photo of him when he was about 5 on my desk. I scanned and made a close-up of an old black and white because he is so sweet and loving in this image. Reminds me of that part of him I miss the most.

  7. What a pleasant post! I love your family’s creativity, not only in photography but in how you handled losing your luggage. The photos and story bring out Vic’s personality. What a fun guy!

    • I had better luck with clothing and found a long cotton skirt and plaid men’s shirt to wear. Men’s flip flops fit, too. A friend who traveled with us and shared the experience told the story at Vic’s memorial service and showed how to wrap a dhotti while he made is laugh. I knew Vic would approve.

  8. Thank you for your continued memories of Vic, Elaine. I always love your photos of nature.

    Three years after Adrian died, I finally got around to sorting through the photos and selecting ones that I felt best represented his life. I scanned them and made a web-page album with captions, showing the story of his life through photos–at least his life since he met me. I sent it to his four sons and other friends and family members. I still love looking at these pages, including the tears they bring to my eyes.

    • Thanks for telling about your photo album experience, Lynne. Our photos are loaded with emotion and memory, sadness and gratitude. I’m so glad you have good photos of Adrian, and I’m glad I’ve seen a few of them. Sending you love.

  9. Lovely post, Elaine. I’m glad Vic went ahead and purchased the digital camera he wanted. The photos he took that summer must be so precious to you.

    My photographs are among my most treasured possessions, without question. Beautiful memories, preserved forever. I love taking nature photographs as well; I could shoot flowers for hours and hours on end, playing with various settings. Most of the photos that hang on my walls are ones that I’ve taken.

    I recently started coloring, and I’m amazed at how relaxing it is. It’s one of those artistic pursuits that requires enough focus that it doesn’t allow the mind to wander. I find it quiets the chaos in my head and is incredibly soothing. I joke that I’m going to start taking an afternoon coloring break at work, but it may not be too far from the truth! 🙂

    • I’m glad Vic bought the camera, too, even if it only got a few months of use. Photographs are a good reminder of gratitude.

      I’ve done a little mandala coloring and it was peaceful. Right now I’m knitting booties for a friend’s granddaughter. Seems those small creative tasks quite the mind and keep us relaxed. Always good things. Maybe you’ll start a new trend at work if you haven’t already.

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