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Take a Picture of a Feeling…

Jan 18

In history at 7:36am

Every once in a while, you might get a feeling you need to shoot a picture. I would follow through on those, no matter how awkward, or sad, or inconvenient it might be. Over the years, I’ve made pictures of some feelings. Missed lots of times. Some, though, I still have a picture of, and I’m glad I do. Those pictures, of those feelings, have become my memory. When I saw my mom over Christmas, I had a feeling it would be the last time I would see her. So I made a picture.

My mom was an Irish lady with a trip wire temper and a pretty good right cross. She was also a good mom, in her way. She spent her life raising three kids, fiercely, and uprooting us as my dad kept changing jobs. He was gone a lot, so she bought and sold five homes on her own, and stuffed all of us and the dog into a Plymouth Belvedere, and headed for neighborhoods and schools unknown. She also spent her life doing battle with just about anybody she felt looked at her cross-ways, which was just about everybody, including, maybe even especially, her own family. She always spoke her mind. And if you didn’t agree with her, you were just, you know, wrong. Her steely bluntness made for lively family gatherings, which diminished in popularity and numbers over the years.

Ma was just about always at DEFCON One or Two at the least. Prickly to a fault, she went through her day on the alert for any fault or slight, real or perceived. If you did business with her, you pretty much got sued, or at the very least received a legally loaded, relatively unpleasant letter. She went through lawyers like popcorn.

Mom was a sword that cut both ways, of course. Her fearsomely direct approach to parenting left you no doubt as to where you stood as one of her kids, to be sure. But woe to someone she thought might have crossed one of us! One of my high school teachers who didn’t care for my attitude, an Irish Christian brother no less, drastically re-jiggered one of my grades once to negatively affect my GPA. She went to the school and fixed it, and him. I’m sure he said his prayers that night with renewed vigor.

Neighbors were an especially favorite target, especially if they had the temerity to actually stick around, and plant bushes she didn’t find attractive, or re-grade their property so that by her lights their runoff water would then hurtle, Niagara-like, towards her property. Once, a neighbor came over to ask her to shut down the light bulb she kept on overnight above her driveway door. He alleged it was keeping his toddler up at night. I don’t think it was reasonable to ask a 75 year old woman living by herself to shut down the comfort of a 60 watt bulb in the driveway, really. Neither did Ma.

She nodded when informed of the youngster’s sleep travails, and thanked the neighbor for the information. The very next week, after a visit by an electrician, her driveway was lit up with multiple 150 watt floodlights that sprayed so much illumination her place looked like a POW camp, minus the razor wire and the bark-less Dobermans. Those neighbors irked her so much she put up a laundry line on the thin, heavily shaded strip of property between her garage and their backyard, a place where literally, the sun didn’t shine. Every time those folks launched a barbecue or had some company, her undies would go up on the line. They would stay wet, on the line, all day. Drying them, you see, wasn’t the point.

Our parents live on in all of us, of course. Once, approaching the George Washington Bridge in heavy traffic, with four lanes squeezing to two, I went Road Warrior on somebody who was trying to cut in front of me. White knuckling the steering wheel, muttering ancient curses, I was on a bumper grinding heading with this guy when my ever perceptive oldest daughter called out from the passenger seat, “Dad, you’re becoming grandma.” I let the guy in.

All of mom’s flinty antics were of course amusing and exasperating until they became serious. As the police chief of her town said to me and my sisters, “We really don’t want to put an 85 year old in jail. But she has to stop.” Ma was pushing it. In the end she was the one who moved.

We had our bumps, to be sure, and long periods of silence as the years wore on, as she got ever angrier at the world and her diminished power over it. Eventually, given the haze of aging memory, she softened a bit, and there were a couple of visits. At almost 97, she could hear and see just fine, and took one aspirin a day as the sum of her medication. What she couldn’t do particularly well was remember.

She had flashes, though. That last visit, I do think she recognized me, if only briefly, and she reached to hold my hand. As difficult as it was, I made a picture.

We talked for a bit. It was nice. As I left, I made this last photo. I guess I just had a feeling.

She’s gone now. True to form, she resolutely refused to share space with my dad, preferring to go with her mom and pop, at rest in the Bronx. The ground there will be richer for her presence, I’m sure. And, if a tree ever grows out of the earth where my mother lays, I guarantee you it will be a tree to be reckoned with.

More tk…..

487 Responses to “Take a Picture of a Feeling…”

Aston Sharman says:

on January 21, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Sorry to hear about your Mum, I think by the responses here you know that our hearts are with you. Best wishes from Aston.

Alan West says:

on January 21, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Thoughts and prayers are with you Joe.

Joe Quinn says:

on January 21, 2011 at 5:22 pm

I am sorry to hear of your mom’s passing, as an Irishman
i think your mom was very typical of most Irish mothers, god bless you if you cross one of their children.
Your post is a timely reminder to us all to take those important images now.
God bless you and your family at this time.

West Cork

bernard gastrich says:

on January 21, 2011 at 5:51 pm

dear joe,
Iwas Ann cahill’s eye doctor all through her childhood and teen years.
Your blogs,especially the one about your mother made me feel that the attached from Geogia O’Keefe would be very meaningful to you.
Hope to learn from you personally at some point.
Bernard Gastrich

Could not attach! Please ask Ann to contact me.

Mary says:

on January 21, 2011 at 6:06 pm

I lost my Dad 14 years ago, and it’s not a day that goes by that I’ll need help with something and I’ll think Dad will know, but then I get sad as I can’t call. When we were little Mom used to tell us now if I get like my Mom you let me know. We did once and she got mad at us. As the years go by I see more and more Grandmother in her.

Dick Wood says:

on January 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Beautiful words and pictures. I have a lump in my throat. I am sorry for your loss.

Dick Wood

Aaron Wulf says:

on January 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm


What a moving post. Thank you for having the courage to share it with us.

My thoughts are with you and your family.


Paul Rowland says:

on January 22, 2011 at 12:06 am

What a wonderful post. Sorry for your loss. Your blog and work is amazing and you are an inspiration for so many people. Thank you for sharing your life and work with us.

Eric says:

on January 22, 2011 at 2:43 am


I am sorry for your loss. My mom passed away on Jan 14. I made some pictures of her a few weeks ago. It was somewhat difficult to do but I am glad I did. I will always take pictures of feelings from this point on.

My thoughts go out to you and yours,

Juan Jose Marquez says:

on January 22, 2011 at 9:01 am

Very sorry for your loss Joe, It is very moving to read this post from you, my mom is 72 years old thank God for letting us enjoy our moms for so long.

Paul Van says:

on January 22, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Thank you for the moving post – my mom died young (53) and I don’t feel I have enough pictures of her.

Your post also shows us that the best pictures we take, are the ones we take now – of the people who mean the most to us. When those moments are gone, they’re gone forever.

Manu says:

on January 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm


Heidi Anne Morris says:

on January 22, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Joe, you are a good man and a kind soul. I’m really sorry for your loss & heartache.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings.

All my best to you, Heidi

Erwin says:

on January 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Read your post with tears in my eyes joe. I guess even if you can photograph the most beautifull women of the world, in the end these personal pictures are the ones which matter the most. Yesterday we had dinner at a restaurant with my parents who are now both 75+ years. So I took your advice and shot some nice pictures of them. Thanks for being an inspiration for me and my thoughts are with you and your family

Polgara says:

on January 22, 2011 at 5:16 pm

I am sorry to hear about your loss. I am really glad you got those wonderful images to help remember her with. She sure sounds feisty!

Frank doorhof says:

on January 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm

We wish you all the best Joe.
I recognize something from your story with my grandmother, I shot images of her during mothers day while she was doing very well from a broken hip.
A few days later she was gone……
We are all so very glad with those final images, it goes without saying that as photographers we do sometimes have the burden of taking that difficult shot, but often we also have the joy af being able to take the most important shot for or of someone, especially being yourself.

Nikki says:

on January 22, 2011 at 11:46 pm

So sorry to hear of the loss of your mom. There was obviously a voice telling you to take that last picture of her. We never know when it’ll be the last time we see someone. She sounds very similiar to my mom, extremely strong willed, her way or no way (in hell!). My mom has dementia now and has none of that spirit left in her. I actually miss her spunk, even though she could say hurtful things.

I went through cancer last year and was ready to kick the year to the curb on new year’s eve, but I got a phone call that day that my dad (who also has dementia) suffered a massive heart attack. We thought he was dead and it was only through confused phone calls that they continued with CPR and got a heart beat back after 40 minutes, otherwise he’d be dead now. It was a late x-mas miracle. It gave us another chance to spend time with him and we feel very blessed. His dementia is worse due to brain damage but he’s very cheery these days and I’ve been sure to take pictures of him.

Take care.

James says:

on January 23, 2011 at 12:00 am

99 and the same hands. That’s my grandmother. From ireland and co-leader of a family of 5. Tough and always cracking a joke. Or sort of a joke. Something that makes you feel guilty and defensive anyway.

I saw her today and I fear that her time is coming soon. She prays to be gone but despite her prayers she is still mobile. She only quit driving 5 years ago.

She’s slowed down 50% in the last 3 months. A long hospital stay. Those hands. It makes me cry to think about them.

I am sorry for your loss. David Burnett said something wonderful in the world press photo masterclass a few years back that stuck with me. Something to the effect that he regrets not turning around. Not taking the pictures that really matter. Family.

Hank Conrad says:

on January 23, 2011 at 1:43 am


What beautiful images and a moving post. I am sorry for your loss.
She must have been proud to have a son who has inspired so many.

My last picture of my mother was earlier this year on here 90th birthday; actually got a smile.
It was the best day she has had since then. I hope when the day comes, I can write about her half as well as you have about your mom.

Our thoughts are with you. All the best.

erin says:

on January 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm

so i’m crying and wanting to just tell you that i’m sorry, but so glad you got to hold her hand and make a couple of pictures. big hug to you, joe.

Harry says:

on January 23, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Really enjoyed this. My mother is 92 and in ill health. I know that I need to go see her and take a picture of her with her Player Piano. Years of memories, Mom, family and piano. Thanks. sorry for you loss. All the best.

Archecolour says:

on January 23, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Thank you for penning, photographing and perpetuating your story and your mothers prescence on our planet. Take care.

Rick Potts says:

on January 23, 2011 at 9:12 pm

My condolences.

Saints of God come to her aid.
Hasten to meet her, angels of the Lord.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon her.

tomasz brymora says:

on January 24, 2011 at 12:28 am

… making people weep and laugh is something you’d do! I’ve been processing your post for a few days and I’m not sure what’s more stunning? The post like a double cyclone of words and photos reformulating a lot of ideas about life or your ability and willingness to share so much under such circumstances.
I’m so sorry for your loss. … and thank you.

… but I have to say, your mom would probably enjoy some SB-900′s rigged up on her porch to randomly fire at the neighbors :-)

udi tirosh says:

on January 24, 2011 at 1:09 am

Hi Joe,
I am sorry for your loss.
Those are great pictures.
parents/children relationship are never as simple as what they show in sitcoms. thanks for sharing the good and the bad, giving a strong picture of her (no pan intended).

my thoughts are with you.

Donald says:

on January 24, 2011 at 1:49 am

Condolence Joe! So sad to hear the news. May she rest in peace.

Alexis in HK says:

on January 24, 2011 at 9:18 am

What a lovely, touching tribute. I am sorry for your loss — but she does live on — in you.

Wong ( M'sia ) says:

on January 24, 2011 at 10:17 am


My condolences to you and your family .

Barbara Rice says:

on January 24, 2011 at 10:30 am

Thanks so much, Joe, for being so unashamedly open and honest about your struggles, fears, and loss. Every human being will encounter these times, and damn us whenever we don’t act on those gut feelings to somehow capture the moment…be it with a sincere “I love you” when it hasn’t been spoken in years, a photo, or even a warm hug. That could be the last, and it could also be a witness to others similarly in the moment.

Your mother sounds awesome…I will look for her when my day comes. Until then, for those of us still here on earth, stay strong, be vigilant, and love with all your might, through your lens and through your actions.

Deji Osinulu says:

on January 24, 2011 at 10:31 am

Thoughts & prayers with you and your family Joe. With wishes for smiles & joyful remembrances even in the middle of grief & loss.

- Deji.

Shannon Christopher says:

on January 24, 2011 at 10:33 am

Your act of sharing such a personal moment is beyond generous. You are a wonderful photographer of course Joe, but your gesture of sharing your experience, and ultimately who you are, is a wonderful lesson beyond the camera.

Brock Lawson says:

on January 24, 2011 at 10:40 am

Joe you are such an inspiration and great person.

This post was definitely a tear jerker.
It is posts like these that remind me why you truly are my number one role model and hero.

Thanks for everything you do,


Didier Kaade says:

on January 24, 2011 at 11:24 am

Condolences on your loss, the share will definitely add to the memory of her, and introduce her to a whole new generation of people who now know a glimpse of the woman she was, and will always be in your heart.

All the best to your family and my condolences again for the loss. You are in our prayers.

BillyS says:

on January 24, 2011 at 11:37 am

Thank you for sharing. It is hard to share those moments that are closest to our hearts. I recorded a converstion I had with my mother this last ThanksGiving, so I think I am going to add photos to that practice. Your story reminds me so much of my own. Even though a mother’s words can cut you like a steel cable, you still love them.
Agin thank you. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family. I’m sure your own children will thank you for enriching their family history by your photos and words.


Dave Purcell says:

on January 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Such a nice tribute. As has been expressed above, you’ve left a lump in my throat. I know this must be hard to share, but your experience relates to so many and communicates the feelings eloquently of all who have lost one close to us and gives us a catharsis.

Anil says:

on January 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Joe, lovely tribute. I’m sorry for your loss.

Richard Knight says:

on January 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm

So very sorry on your loss, she will live on not just in your memories but for others in your photographs.

Charles Tibbs says:

on January 24, 2011 at 1:12 pm

You have changed my photography for the better and have read all your books and laughed through and loved them all. If I did not know better I would say you were describing my Mother (her being of English decent was the giveaway) and you made me cry.
My mother passed away in 2006 way to early from Diabetes complications. Like your mother she was a hand grenade waiting to go off at a moments notice, I recall being around 11 years old in a parking lot and someone took her spot. All 5’3″ of her climbed out of our station wagon and a verbal assault an a huge man ensued, some of the words I had never heard before.
I am truly sorry for your loss and wish you and your family the very best. Only words of advice I can give is Grieve as much and as long as you need.

Thank you for everything you do and for sharing this with us all.


Dave says:

on January 24, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Joe, I am sorry for your loss. She must have been an exceptional woman having raised a son like you.

Piotr says:

on January 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm

..after all… that’s the great time of your life. Your experience… and its now shared with us all.
She gave you that special way of feeling and seeing the world, the people, the feelings. Keep going this way…

Barry Rayburn says:

on January 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Condolences, Joe. When you have a lull, look at Isaiah 57:1. It’s a verse I’ve turned to at times and found comfort in. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. As always, thank you for sharing with so many of us from your abundant talents.

Sam Allen says:

on January 24, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Joe, my thoughts are with you man. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Don McKay says:

on January 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Thank you for sharing. Our hearts are with you. We have been going through our old family photos seeing people who have passed and remembering them in many ways, we are scanning in a lot of them and putting stories with them so that our family’s will know what these loved ones meant to us. Everyone needs to pass on these memories. Don’t just store them in a box.

Thanks, Don

Iris Olafsdottir says:

on January 24, 2011 at 5:20 pm

My condolences for you loss Joe.

dan brien says:

on January 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Thanks to you, your mom will live on in all of us. Sorry for your loss and thanks for sharing.

Gregory Gardea says:

on January 24, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Very moving. The photos really magnify the words right off the page. Thanks for sharing.

Hillary Shemin says:

on January 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm

My sincere condolences to you Joe. You wrote a very touching tribute to your mother… so important that we treasure those every day moments.. so wonderful that as photographers we have the ability to capture them to share. I lost both of my parents while I was only in my 20′s..I treasure the few photos I have. I never really thought at that time to take those ‘last shots’ that a person with older parents would think of. I still miss them over 30 years later and treasure the missing and emotion I feel, knowing that I will never forget them no matter how many years pass. Thank you for this open and gentle post. Take care…

scotty says:

on January 25, 2011 at 1:05 am

dear joe, lost my father in 2007 – i can image how you feel – a mother is a mother indeed..

be greatful for all the things your mother gave you and be a proud son


Doede says:

on January 25, 2011 at 7:33 am

Hi Joe, may you keep the best memories of your mother in your heart and mind!

Mark R. says:

on January 25, 2011 at 8:57 am

Joe, thanks for sharing.

My condolences to you and the entire family.

I’m one of the hundreds of people you move and inspire constantly & Thank You for that.

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