A photographer’s affection reveals joy in tragedy

Margaret Eunice Scheidt with her husband, Allan, at their home in Dundalk, Maryland. (Sean Scheidt, Time Spent)

For photographer Sean Scheidt, it all began with deciding to document his relatives to preserve memories of their time together. But when tragedy struck his working-class family in Dundalk, Md., Scheidt found himself stricken with a grief difficult to put into words. Instead, he used his skills as a photographer to capture his feelings in singular moments of loss, joy and hardship that ultimately reveal the enduring love of a family in a Baltimore suburb.

Scheidt’s upbringing was modest. The late Allan Scheidt and Margaret Eunice Scheidt, his grandparents, became his most ardent supporters. In high school, he found himself living under their roof just as they were beginning to age into their golden years. Allan and Eunice helped to cultivate Scheidt’s love of painting. Scheidt, who is now an expertly trained painter and professional photographer in Los Angeles, always had the underpinning support of his grandparents to pursue a creative career.

The photographer’s grandfather always enjoyed Scheidt’s presence as both grandson and family documentarian. “By the time the project started grappling with grief and mourning and death, I had been photographing the family for years. We would get together all the time, and I would just naturally have a camera in my hand. The family got used to my presence with a camera in my hand …” Scheidt said of the series. The familiarity allowed him to break down the barriers between photographer and subject.

In Scheidt’s summation, the collection, “Time Spent,” begins with a loss and a funeral, after his uncle Stephen suddenly died at 52. Since late 2015, Scheidt has been organizing the project and using it to process grief as he processes the images he takes.

Moments before Scheidt’s uncle was taken off life support, Scheidt decided to quickly snap a photo of his uncle’s last moments with his cellphone. In the image, Kristi Wyman, the photographer’s sister, clutches the arm of Stephen Scheidt while saying her goodbyes.

Now the photographer’s favorite image in the series, it shows how he removes himself from the present into a voyeuristic state of mind to capture the grief that permeates the overarching experience of the project. “I do try to make it more their story than my story cause the catharsis to me is doing the thing,” he said. “I don’t need to show myself.”

The poignancy of the work is further developed by Scheidt’s own feelings for the subject. In a way, he is present. Rather than the viewer seeing the photographer, Scheidt reveals himself by placing the viewer in his shoes so that his own family is their family. The honesty of each carefully curated frame strips away preconceived notions of grief and tragedy to envelop the audience in the photographers’ personal relationships.

Scheidt’s use of these highly personal encounters takes the viewer on a narrative journey. For him, the narrative roots itself in a conversation about the totality of family bonds. Specifically, how those bonds tether him to his relatives and their larger journeys through life. “It’s not a series about the elderly for me,” Scheidt said. “Nor is it about people dying. It’s about coming to terms with the stages of life, the tragedies that encroach, and how a family handles that, how I handle that.”

In 2020, Scheidt’s grandfather Allan died at 87. The family found joy in the somber scene of the patriarch’s funeral. As the images of “Time Spent” played on a slide show during the funeral, a palpable intimacy was provoked. “He loved every time I had my camera around,” Scheidt said. “I think he understood it, but the moment the whole family started to understand the power in these images was at his funeral when they realized the memory and legacy it held.”

One feels immense empathy for the family and the photographer as the narrative evolves through a multitude of loss and illness. The emotional connection between photographer and subject is evident of a rapport so deep it can be fashioned only by years of familial comfort and personal knowledge of the experience.

Throughout the series, you see many representations of life. The audience sees the mourning of death, the objects that are left behind when a death takes place, the history of a family and the legacies that are upheld through the people who carry on. Scheidt’s choice to use photography as a means of representation and legacy began with simply taking family photos.

For Scheidt, the project has chapters that are bookmarked by celebration and by mortality. Thus, the work can always continue as it grows with the photographer, his family and the stages of being.

Sean Scheidt is a photographer based in Los Angeles known for his painterly lighting style and editorial fashion photography. You can learn more about the photographer at his website, here.