Terminally ill father and family photographer Larry Toh explains exactly why photography means so much to him
If you knew you only had a few years – or months – to live, what would you do differently, mama? Family photographer Larry Toh was diagnosed with terminal cancer when his daughter was 18 months old, and has been learning to live in the moment ever since. Read on for his moving thoughts about capturing the precious moments that make up our family lives.
This is an article about the importance of family photography. Except it is not all about just that. It is an intimate look at my own life and how it had led me to this point of my life, and the appreciation I have for family photography.
In a lifetime, there are some moments when time seems to slow down to allow the mind to process what is happening, whether good or bad. These are moments that can change the course of someone’s life. I’ve been fortunate to have a few of them. Picture a movie scene where the main protagonist has an important decision to make. The scene is slightly in slow motion and the soundtrack slightly muffled.
One of the first for me was when I saw my black and white image appear in print under the red light of the darkroom for the first time. I was amazed. It was better than magic. I was hooked. I would shoot only black and white for a few years. Now I shoot some of my work in colour because there is value in that. But black and white is part of me, much like what a seasoned trumpet is to a jazz musician, an old friend.
I was told I have a rare cancer in 2012. You would think this would be the next life changing moment, but I did not have enough awareness at that point for it to be. I went through surgery and radiation but quickly slipped back into the comfort of my life as it was. I thought for a moment that I was going to pursue photography full time, but quickly dismissed it for fear of losing the stability I have at my job.
The next life changing moment would be the birth of my daughter. She came out quiet and within a few seconds she let out the loudest cry I’ve ever heard from a child, let alone a newborn. At that moment I knew our lives would never be the same again. It was going to be awesome!
I thought parenting was about teaching a child, but the exact opposite is true. The child teaches you so much that you have forgotten. Hannah taught me to live my life in the moment, to take things a step at a time, to love, to be true to my emotions and to be brave and learn new things. Being her father is pure joy. My wife, Li Ling, says sometimes when I look at Hannah, I look like I’m in love. I think she’s right.
The next moment would come one and a half years after Hannah’s birth. My doctor called and told me that my cancer had relapsed and this time it had spread to the lungs. This was my greatest fear. I came home from work that day and Li Ling and I hugged each other and cried for the longest time. Doctors could not recommend any further treatment but were quick to put a number to my life expectancy. I started planning for my funeral in my head and even bought a book called Duck, Death and the Tulip to explain death to Hannah. It’s a beautiful book. That was the period of grief.
Acceptance would follow after that. We came to accept the cancer as part of our lives and once we had done that, we realised that life is far from over. I started living in the moment more. Everyday I’m thankful that I’m asymptomatic, that I’m able-bodied, able-minded and that I’m alive. We stopped making long-term plans and started living life a step at a time.
All this would lead to me leaving my job to do three things: take care of my health, be with my family and finally pursue photography. It was a big step for the whole family but definitely one in the right direction.
At the very beginning, I didn’t know what sort of photographer I was going to be. I love documentary, street and portrait photography. Documentary would take too much time away from my family. Street would be fun, but would not generate any income. Portrait would be fun as well but I wasn’t sure how to get the clients. My wife suggested that I should take photos for families and I thought that would be a good start.
After doing a few family photoshoots, I began to see my artistic direction developing. I realised I enjoy capturing the unguarded moments very much. I also enjoy it the most when families are relaxed and are allowed to be themselves. I found it to be a beautiful experience to observe relationships between parents, children, grandparents, and helpers. The dynamics of these relationships tells stories about the families. Sometimes I wish I could spend the whole day with the family to get to know them and to tell their story at a deeper level.
One day while processing photos for a client, I started to browse through my catalog of old photos and suddenly it struck me that I had not been documenting my own family much. Then I remembered Li Ling mentioning that I don’t take enough photos of her and Hannah together. I had always been looking for photography projects outside my life without realising that the most meaningful project I could embark on is right there in front of my eyes, 24/7.
I started to think of my childhood, and how little I remember of it. We have very few photo albums of us growing up. I wondered if I would be able to remember more if there were more photographs.
Then I thought about the moments in my life that I wish I had captured. I thought of my Grandpa and how he used to sit on the same chair and asking me the same questions every time I visited him. I thought about his last days. He was lying immobile in bed, skin and bones, no longer able to speak. He was a big man but he had shrunk so much. My Grandma, father, mother and a helper fed him and cleaned him every day. The scene that I remember so vividly was when my Grandpa had difficulty breathing. He started wheezing. My father was with him and he stroked my Grandpa’s head gently, and whispered words to his ears to calm him down. I had never seen this tender side of my father, and I had also never seen this intimacy between them. I came close to tearing up. I hope I would be able to care for my father this lovingly when the time eventually comes. My Grandpa passed away two days after that. To me that moment was the closure to their relationship as father and son. I wish I had captured it on film.
So I made a conscious effort to start documenting my family as we go about our daily lives. The photos could be unspectacular moments like taking the MRT together, or having a meal at a hawker center. Then there are those of laughter, joy, tears, holidays and special occasions. Piecing them together, I realised I was telling my family’s own story.
These moments are slices of time that will never repeat themselves again. If I don’t capture them, they will remain only as memories in my mind. Across time, I would start losing bits of them, and one day all I would have are residues of these memories.
This realisation made me see my work with new eyes. I started to feel the importance of what I’m doing. I’m helping families capture their lives at the very present. One day, when they look back at the photos, they will recall how everyone looked when they were younger, how their house used to look like, and maybe what they enjoyed doing together as a family. Beyond that, more importantly, I hope that the photos will trigger emotions that they would reconnect with. Some photos bring you right back to the moments when they were taken.
So that leads me to this very moment where I’m typing this article. I’m sitting on a couch. My daughter and wife are having supper. It is the present. If you practise mindfulness, then you would know that It is the only moment that matters. The future is not here yet. The past is over. However, the past is what got us here in the first place, and the past is made up of memories of what we have seen, heard, or felt. At the end of it all, if my photos could help any family relive these memories, then it brings meaning to my work, for how would we know how to move forward if we don’t remember where we came from?
There is no greater subject to photograph than a family. Family is important. To quote Kofi Annan “It is within the family that children learn the values that will guide them for the rest of their lives, It is within the family that they form their earliest relationships, learn to communicate with others and interact with the world around them. It is within the family that the notion of human rights becomes a reality lived on a daily basis. If tolerance, respect and equality permeate family life, they will translate into values that shape societies, nations and the world.”
I hope this article brings to light why some of us family photographers keep doing what we do. If it makes you consider getting a photoshoot for your family, then my advice is to choose one that suits your style. If not, then I hope you would be inspired to start taking photos of your own family.
Read more: The Best Family Photographers in Singapore
All images courtesy of Larry Toh