“Tilt your head to the right a bit.”

“Go ahead and the drop the front hand. Turn your shoulders, leave your legs.”

“Real smile, no fake smiles!”

Directions like these were given frequently as Mexico resident David Pickering positioned best friends Hunter Mesko, Hannah Follis, and Taylor Williams, all age 17. The three posed against a white wall and on a stairwell in one of downtown Mexico’s brick alleys for a “best friends” photoshoot.

While Pickering can often be spotted around town with a camera in hand, photography is not his day job. He is a funeral director and embalmer with Pickering Funeral Home in Mexico. While he is often recognized as “David Pickering the photographer,” he has spent more than 30 years serving families in the funeral business.

“To me, [funeral service is] my life passion,” said Pickering. “That's what I do and have done for all those years.”

The funeral business is a family endeavor for Pickering. His father purchased what was then Precht Funeral Home in 1967 and Pickering grew up around the enterprise. After graduating from Mexico High School in 1982, he attended the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service. He returned to Mexico in 1984 and said he has been working in the field ever since.

His role as director in a small funeral home means that Pickering is, for the most part, on-call 24/7, year-round. Anything he participates in outside of the funeral home revolves around having a contingency plan.

Always on-call

“Everything that I plan, even family events or community events that I'm involved in, I always have to have a contingency because you just never know, day or night, when the phone will ring,” Pickering said.

He tends to keep photography appointments to the evenings for that reason but, even then, he has to think ahead in case he gets a call.

“I'll stay up until midnight or one o'clock in the morning editing and posting things,” he said. “If I get a call while I'm doing that or in the middle of the night, sometimes the nights are pretty short.”

One of his favorite types of photography is birth photography. Although others may not understand it, Pickering said he enjoys focusing on the joy and emotion that comes with the event.

“One of my favorite pictures I've ever taken was a picture of my wife crying, holding my daughter's knee, when my first grandchild was born,” he said. “To me, that captures and freezes that moment in time because when you look back at that whole experience, you may not remember that.”

While Pickering balances calls related to the funeral business and ones to photograph births, he is also on-call as a photographer for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, an international organization with volunteer photographers and digital retouch artists who capture images for families who lose children at birth.

“Being with and caring for families that have lost infants, I mean, to me there is nothing more devastating — and now, being a grandparent, there would be nothing more devastating than seeing my child lose a child,” said Pickering.

Building relationships

Although his two passions are quite different, they both rely on building relationships. Funeral service is a caregiving business, according to Pickering, that relies heavily on compassion and the ability to read emotions.

“Every family is different and so you have to really be intuitive to find out … what it's gonna take to best serve that family,” he said. “I think it’s just the desire to help people during a difficult time when not everyone can help them.”

The skills required for funeral service carry over into his photography. Pickering said that’s how he got started with photography in the first place.

“I didn't just wake up one day and say ‘Okay, I'm gonna be a photographer and I'm gonna start a side business,’” he said. “I was involved in youth group and youth ministry and one of my jobs, because I enjoyed it, was to document the events. Some kids are very self-conscious about themselves and how they look so I would try to capture them in a way that was flattering to them and made them feel good about themselves.”

A sense of responsibility

When he has a camera in hand, Pickering said he feels empowered to use the knowledge he’s gained over the years of how to create images in difficult situations. He also said he feels a sense of responsibility to those with whom he interacts.

“Somebody is counting on me to create images and to capture images that are gonna make them feel proud of them, feel good about themselves and also something that they'll cherish,” he said.

Serving families in funeral service carries a similar sense of responsibility.

“That's actually a goal, is to get through the entire [funeral] process without any problems so that it just runs smoothly and it's like they don't even know everything that it takes that you have to do to make it happen,” he said.

While he may be more recognized as a photographer when he’s darting around events, Pickering said he is proud of his work in both fields because they both require compassion towards people and serving in an emotional way.

“The photography to me is more than just capturing images,” said Pickering. “It's about capturing moments in time.”

ssabatke@mexicoledger.com