I loved seeing my father, as a young boy, riding go-karts or climbing trees in what is still our street at Peakhurst.
Fahd, as a young boy, circa 1957. Author provided
The photographs of my grandfather were the most intriguing. I knew that I had met him as a child, but I could not remember. The story of his tragic death was well known, but it wasn’t until I found the extraordinary photos in that box that I realized how sad it really was.
When I brought my grandmother’s heirlooms home, I wanted to reconnect with the history of my family. Over 20 years had passed since I last saw these photos. Under the familiar photos, I found a crumpled brown envelope. There were 24 black and white photos, all hand-printed.
Original photographs in their original envelope. The author provided
These images made me gasp. These images made me cry. They were desolate and yet beautiful, accomplished, and unique.
These photographs, taken on October 29, 1975, document the funeral and burial of my paternal grandpa.
My grandfather was struck by a vehicle in the evening of October 26. It happened right outside his home. He died in hospital the following day and was buried in Lidcombe’s Rookwood Cemetery. In the photos, my family was in deep mourning. They were expressing their grief in a very public manner.
The burial in a Sydney cemetary, 1975. The author provided
Images were difficult to see. The images were difficult to look at because they showed my father’s pain, which had been hidden for more than four decades. He was only 26 years old at the time. My mother was also shown, a young woman aged 24 with tired eyes, hidden behind “Jackie O’s” dark sunglasses. She was heavily preggers with my sister, who would be delivered two weeks later.
Inevitably, the images revealed my grandmother’s pain. She had never spoken to us about her loss or that day, despite living with me and my family for over 28 years.
The author provided photos that show the grief of her grandmother after losing her husband. The author provided the photos.
The photos also revealed the cultural customs surrounding grief. An entire Lebanese village dressed in mourning clothing, with the traditional black attire creating a similar scene to a Hollywood mafia movie or a Fellini film.
The images I saw were a real experience that I had witnessed. Yet, the characters, costumes and scenes were all perfectly staged.
I carefully studied the photos in my bedroom and decided to put them in a small drawer under my mattress. For the next seven-years, they were kept in this drawer. By hiding them, I continued my grandmother’s tradition of keeping them secret.
Asking questions, sharing stories
Late in 2017, I was compelled to find these photos. I had hidden them. I also looked for other funeral photos, searching online archives, institutional collection such as Trove and sellers flogging old images on eBay.
I asked my family and friends if they had seen photos like these and if it was a common practice to photograph funerals in the 1970s. No results were found in my search.
I asked my father. He said he had seen the photos, but forgotten about them. He was happy I had them. I told him they were disturbing and offered to show him.
These images are like something from a Fellini movie. The author provided
We sat at the kitchen table to look at them. I asked him questions, and he told me stories. He didn’t remember the photographer, he thought a family friend took the pictures but did not recall much else.
His elderly uncle, who is also featured in the photos, would later remember a name. Perhaps Jilal. He was a friend of his grandfather, but not “our” village.
I never told my grandmother who took the pictures and why. She had, after all, given them to my grandmother and, in a subtle way, indicated that she didn’t want to discuss them.
Fahd shared her images with Fahd’s father. Author provided
Daniel Mudie Cunningham, a curator and friend with whom I had previously worked, was also present when I shared my photos with him. I knew that he was interested in both grief and family photos. Through our discussions and the writing process, I began to think about the possibility of releasing these images.
After consulting with my father, and receiving his permission, I wanted to turn this story into an artwork that Daniel would be curating at Carriageworks in The National: New Australian Art. The artwork was titled Apokryphos, which is a Greek word that means “hidden, hidden, obscure”.
The tension of the unknown
Long have photography and death been associated. Roland Barthes 1980 work camera Lucida, the most influential photographic text written to date, was a nod towards this pairing. In the aftermath of Barthes’s mother’s passing, the philosopher reflects upon a photograph of her as a child.
The “Winter Garden”, which he calls the photograph, becomes a symbol of grief, as he hopes to find his mother and reclaim her, as well as comfort his loss. He never shows the Winter Garden photograph, even though he devotes half of the book to it.
I compare the tension that comes with never having seen Barthes’s mother to never having met my grandfather. In the photos, he is in the coffin, which resides within the image.
Cherine Fahd’s father reaching for the coffin of his father. Friends is lifting her grandmother’s coffin. Author provided
The photographer is also not visible. We do, however, see what is rare in the West – a person publicly and openly grieving, with grief expressed on their face and body, as well as all other emotions that may follow – fear, anger, melancholia and depression.
Even in the family album, grief is kept private. Even in the album of family photos, it is hidden. These albums are the foundation of our ancestral mythology. These albums are full of photos that celebrate the best times in our lives. My family albums celebrate and portray our moments together; birthdays and holidays, weddings and ordinary moments in domestic life.
What about death? What about images of loss and grief? What is their place within the family archives? In the 19th century, many people were fascinated by post-mortem photographs or “mourning pictures”, but these focused on the dead. In the family album, funerals, burials, and the pain of the mourners are rarely seen.