Photographing a State of Grief

The broad strokes of an emotion can be fairly simple to translate into visual communication. A smile for joy, a tear for sadness, bared teeth for anger, wide eyes for fear. Nuance however is always present, the experience and expression of complex emotions are not always as straightforward.

I know I smile differently when working with clients than when I do among trusted friends. Circumstance, environment, and context all guide the way we express ourselves in ways that do not always line up with those obvious expected emotive visuals.

This complexity was at the front of my mind while I was documenting the gathered crowds at Buckingham Palace, The Mall, and Green Park, as many in the nation entered a state of mourning over the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. These circumstances mean many different things to different people, and that meaning manifests outwardly in some subtle, some obvious ways. While I photographed I was doing my best to identify the subtleties, the manifestation of emotion in ways that really communicated the fragility of the moment.

Note: This article deals with concepts both as abstracts, and as real parts of day-to-day life. It is not written as a critique of culture, but as a balanced account of my personal experiences photographing along a theme. Photography rarely works in isolation; the wider context of a story should be examined and considered. In writing this article I found I could not offer balance from only the one context I was working in at the time, so I had to offer something to actually balance against.

In public gatherings, there is an inherent shared quality to proceedings. The high profile, highly ceremonial nature of all of the proceedings offered a further repressive quality to the sadness, above and beyond my usual experiences at English funerals and wakes (actually a topic I’ve been looking into for a separate project). Nevertheless, among the “stiff upper lips,” there were some intensely personal moments that I did my best to render in a sensitive way.

Personal, not private moments is a key point, as I think that people choosing to go through their methods of grief in private, sharing only with a limited circle, is special, and takes a more refined approach to document. My focus was on those who chose to gather together; a congregation huddling together in the rain, sharing the moment. Together, but a collection of individual feelings and diverse reactions; seeking reassurance in not being alone, looking for the answers to their questions in the nature of sharing experience, even if they are looking for justification to continue bottling things up.

Walking among the flowers and tributes left in Green Park I was reminded of another vigil I photographed, smaller in scale, but I think more personal to many who attended. In early March 2021, a 33-year-old woman named Sarah Everard was murdered by the then-serving Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens. The aftermath of her kidnapping and death, as the circumstances were revealed to the public, saw widespread disobedience as people made a decision to break lockdown restrictions in order to come together.

In these circumstances, I photographed a young girl as her tears soaked through into her facemask, the representation of sadness mixed together with a vivid semiotic of the pandemic. I did not manage to find such clarity while photographing the memorial for the Queen, not one that wasn’t ceremonial or performative. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, just that I didn’t see it, but it did contribute to the direction I ended up working in.

I wasn’t drawn to photographing tears as much as the state of presence, just being in a crowd of mostly mutual understanding. In an abstract way it was what those early months of 2020 lacked for some, specifically everyone going through the same thing, but not being able to gather together to really share it, contributing to the fear of the unknown that permeated those months. Here and now there is some solace in tackling that uncertainty together.

Uncertainty of the future is an aspect of loss I think resonated in these crowds. As close to none as would make no difference of these people knew the Queen as anything more than a figurehead, on money, stamps, and on TV at Christmas. That is still enough significance to permeate social consciousness, and her absence/replacement means a hole in the culture in ways people may not yet have even considered – even if those changes are superficial/aesthetic.

The ceremonial aspect and iconic locations drew people in, but I found there were many moments in between the noise, moments of quiet reflection as people deal with what bereavement of this kind means to them. Behind those layers of spectacle are real human feelings, repressed or let out, manifesting in collectively understood practices, or personal displays. All dealing with questions that may have been put off, repressed, or denied, bubbling up, forced to the front and center of collective thought.

How meaningful is death? How meaningful is this death specifically? What effect beyond aesthetic may it have? On top of this, there is a sort of discord, a cultural whiplash as the proceedings for the funeral merge with the glory around the ascension of the new King, Charles III. Such dissonance, to see the tears on one end of the spectrum, and celebration on the other; how can a culture balance these two feelings simultaneously?

Outside of a tightly controlled media image, and set public appearances how many people, British or otherwise, really knew the Queen? Who spoke to her beyond small talk, or even of those who did who now are turning back on those memories as part of their grieving process? I think for the vast majority, people are not reflecting on personal memories with the departed, but are looking at what they meant to them personally. This will be a different thing for everyone, and there really won’t be a major way to disprove that, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy of projection, expectation, and mythos.

The Queen and the Monarchy mean whatever they say they represent, combined with whatever people want to speculate or imagine. This makes for a very messy cultural figurehead to unravel on anything above an individual level, but whatever the specifics, this is a loss of a significant piece of cultural logic.

Whatever the answers for individuals I think this situation does act as a cultural memento mori, and in this instance, the death of such an archetype, if not the archetype for many, means that there is a lot to untangle. Images of people crying led the front pages when the news broke, but it was not what I was searching for when documenting the same areas of collective mourning. Tears are a good, clear performance, but does it really say more about this specific process of sadness, shared sadness, or is it the generic, surface-level basic? Easily understood without a caption, but without that nuance – tears could be for any death, what is special about this one? Where is the substance beneath the spectacle?

The social cohesion and recognition in this moment are what sets it apart for me. Even those reacting to the situation with anger or outrage at the status quo, the nature of hierarchy itself, still fall under a process of grief. You don’t need to have especially liked someone to grieve their passing, grief can indicate any distress, in this case, a fallout from death but not sadness over the death itself. Again, feeling bubbling to the surface amidst so much background noise. And again, people come together to share and express those feelings.

Memorials and wreaths and messages all offered good insight into the messages the supportive public was leaving for her. On the other side of things, arrests of anti-Monarchy protestors in England and the devolved nations, along with performative actions from businesses (as “tracked” on the Twitter account @GrieveWatch) left many who were ambivalent to the situation feeling like this was now more of a mandatory state of grieving than an optional aspect of cultural participation.

The closing of food banks, cancellations of funerals that were to be held on the same day as the Queen’s scheduled commitment, as well as cancellations of hospital appointments and operations that were scheduled for that day further exacerbated this sentiment. That is a meaningful effect on people’s lives who have no choice but to accommodate, deferring to perhaps the least democratic aspect of the British status quo whether they like it or not.

Many have expressed the reaction that these impacts demonstrate that just as there is inequality in life there is also inequality in death. Here the close-to-mandated state of mourning-in-name-only for the death of a figurehead easily translates into a backlash against the seat and status of the Monarchy, regardless of the individual who holds it. This helplessness also equates to a state of grief, not sorrow for the dead, or its meaning as a reminder of the fragility of individual life, but anguish towards the continuing status quo, somber empathy for the present social crises, and the devastation the coming winter is likely to bring.

Just as the monarchy is a symbol onto which meaning can be projected so too are the faceless casualties of those who have slipped through various social chasms atop which the Monarchy resides. Far more ambiguous than a specific person’s death, the visibility of the nations mourning for the Queen has inspired some to focus on the grief of living and contributing to a destructive system, the steep cost of living crisis hitting home for many who never needed to worry about such things even a few years ago, on top of those who have struggled their entire lives.

The fact that people will die in the cold in the not-too-distant future offers a stark comparison to the lavish expense of the state funeral. The fact that food, water, and a roof over one’s head are at a premium, and has been for a while, is more real to people and cuts through the noise far more cleanly than the intangible, messy collective conception of the Queen herself. One is a symbol, a presence in their life. The other is their life.

Photographs that capture this aspect of misery and shared heartache are powerful, and best made in those intimate scenarios I mentioned as a contrast to the public moments I documented during these events. In these images one would hope to see grief as a catalyst, a call to action, a jolt to the senses as people awaken to that same memento mori, influenced by the very public reminder of the hierarchy and status quo.

As such my photographs here are not even a fraction of the real story, a story that does not begin and end with a death and a funeral. The story stretches from Buckingham Palace into every other socially conscious photograph being made. The fabric of society is interconnected; there are no isolated incidents. The death of the Queen and the situation surrounding that does not end at the queue of mourners paying their respects, it ends at the radiators that won’t be switched on this winter, in the social housing and food banks, in the hospitals and streets over which the new figurehead now resides.

Stories can be connected in conjectural ways, but here I think there is a clear path in the emotional manifestations and social cohesion around those who experience grief because of her passing, and those who experience grief despite her passing.

This ultimately humanitarian documentary work will not occur as a singular event, but will be best witnessed collectively; long term as life is lived. For the best insight I strongly suggest the work of Jim Mortram, as well as the upcoming book Outsiders by Marc Davenant. There are many other documentary photographers, too many to list, who document the failings of this system currently in a state of bereavement.

Those images are deeply relevant context to the images of people mourning the Queen’s passing. Whether or not the work is specifically presented as associated with, or specifically standing against the system it is critiquing I think the perspective here is important, two sides of the same coin, as culture reconciles what these symbols and dreams actually mean to them.

Photographs of flowers, pomp and circumstance, costumes, color, and procession will only take on sincere meaning when viewed in harmony with the testimony of hunger, trauma, failure, and hope.

About the author: Simon King is an English photographer and photojournalist, currently working on long-form documentary projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, New Exit Group, and on Instagram.