Death doesn’t get treated like the milestone it is. It’s not celebrated like a birth or a graduation or a wedding. It’s commemorated, sure. But to photographer Cindy Hegger, the transition between this life and whatever comes next deserves to be lovingly chronicled just like any other major moment.
Hegger provides dying clients with end of life photography. The concept, one that’s slowly growing in popularity, involves the hiring of a photographer to capture moments near the end of a person’s life, be it in the months following a terminal diagnosis or during the last few days of hospice care. Hegger spends an afternoon or a day with her subject and whomever else they wish to have present and simply, silently, captures moments. The results come to her clients as a hardcover photo book.
“I’ll say, ‘You might not want to look at this now, but in a year you’ll be really happy you have it,’” Hegger says.
A Bay Area native, Hegger became involved with chronicling issues surrounding the end of life when she was hired to take pictures of proponents and lawmakers working toward California’s End of Life Option Act, a bill to allow terminally ill patients to legally request life-ending medication that was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015. While in Sacramento, Hegger connected with Deborah Ziegler, the mother of Brittany Maynard, an Orange County woman with brain cancer who had to move to Oregon to die on her own terms, and with Christy O’Donnell, a Los Angeles lung cancer patient who died in 2016. One of Hegger’s first projects was to photograph Ziegler and O’Donnell together — one last time.
“One of the things I greatly regret is that we didn’t get photographs of my daughter in the end stage of life. The only photos that were taken were taken by the media,” Ziegler says. “They weren’t indicative of who we were and our relationship.”
Unwilling to miss another opportunity, Ziegler and O’Donnell spent a day being photographed by Hegger before O’Donnell’s death.
“It was just a beautiful day. Everybody felt safe. Everybody felt loved,” Ziegler says. “And I hate having my picture taken. It’s just a phobia that I have, but I didn’t even know they were being taken that day because we were having so much fun.”
The experience was transformative for Hegger as well. She has redirected her 30-year photography career to focus on chronicling the dying before they, as Hegger puts it, transition. She credits her sensitive demeanor and photojournalist’s ability to be invisible to allow for such an intimate experience to be captured on film.
While some photographers work specifically with hospices, it can be a challenge for clients to find someone who specializes in taking candid family photos of the terminally ill. Yet the more work she does, the more Hegger is seeing an interest in the concept of end of life photography. Clients who find her work online ask, “Do you do the dying pictures?”
“It’s hard to market this,” Hegger confesses. “It’s a little more private.”
The 59-year-old Pleasanton resident was her own first client. Before her mother passed away two years ago, Hegger spent a day with her at the beach. With a friend assisting her with getting a wheelchair onto the sand, Hegger and her mom relaxed into the experience, a connection they’d struggled to share in their past. “She was happy, she was free, she was outside,” Hegger says. “She was smoking!”
Her experience with subjects toward the end of their lives has done more than redirect Hegger’s career. It’s freed her from a fear of death. “The faces I have photographed are not afraid of anything,” Hegger says. “The people who are leaving become joyful.”
Hegger is quick to clarify that her work isn’t done for the dying. It’s meant to be treasured by the living left behind.
Says Hegger, “It’s probably the most important work I’ve ever done.”