I’ve been looking at how other photographers have captured religious communities. It’s been surprisingly difficult to find many examples that really fit the criteria that I’m looking for: photo essays observing a particular religious community from the inside.
There are lots of religion-themed photo essays around but many are either too broad in scope (e.g. Christianity in a whole country) or too narrow (e.g. prayer cards). I’ve been looking for examples of a traditional ‘fly-on-the-wall’ observational documentary approach to an otherwise closed-off community.
I think, based on my own experience in securing approval to do my project, religious communities are often understandably wary of misrepresentation by outsiders. The minister of the pentecostal church that I’m observing made the point that worship is a very personal experience and he has a duty of pastoral care to make sure that members of his congregation are not exploited.
That said, I did find a few example projects that I could learn from. I’m particularly interested in the specific subject matter that these projects have chosen, and how the subjects have been represented in the frame in terms of any distinctive visual style.
Jan Sochor’s Palo: African Ritual in Cuba
Sochor’s subject matter is, to ‘civilised’ eyes, easy to perceive as sensationalist. The Palo religion blends elements of other faiths including Christianity and animism into a distinctive visual spectacle. The photos range from portraits through ritual events to still life compositions of significant artefacts.
The style is colourful and engaging, although Sochor’s preference for a jaunty angle (to suggest edginess, or quirkiness?) gets a little tiring. Close-ups of hands focus the attention on the rituals rather than the individuals, and these detail shots work well. Overall it’s a success: one does get a strong sense of the ‘otherness’ of the Palo people, yet it stays on the right side of sensationalism (just).
Richard Renaldi’s Inside a Mormon Ward
On this assignment for Time magazine, Renaldi captured a community of Californian Mormons around the time that the church was embroiled in controversy over its support of anti-gay marriage legislation. Ironically, Renaldi is gay and made no secret of this. The resulting pictures, however, betray no such tension or any agenda from either party – they are a very neutral, objective-looking set of images in a traditional documentary style. Compared to the hyperactive Palo project, this is very much deadpan in style.
The overriding sense I got from the images was however that they really needed the accompanying captions to work; without the words, most of these images could have been of any small-town US community. In comparison, Sochor’s work detailed above is visually so distinctive as to (almost) be able to stand alone from its words.
Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Hasidic Holiday
Mathews focuses her camera on a particular fragment of Hasidic community life: the tradition for large groups of British orthodox Jews to decamp to the Welsh coastal town of Aberystwyth for a two-week summer holiday. The temptation here is to over-emphasise the juxtaposition of the traditionally quite serious Hasidic Jews with the frivolous atmosphere of the seaside resort – the ‘fish out of water’ trope.
Though generally the images are quite objective or in some cases warm and affectionate, I do think that very occasionally Mathews falls into inadvertently coming across as slightly mocking – the image of the three men in traditional orthodox dress rolling around on the beach has a touch of ‘BBC3 sketch show’ about it. However, this is really the exception that highlights where the line should have been drawn (for me, anyway), and the balance of the series come down on the right side of ‘curious observer’. Again like the Sochor work (and unlike the Renaldi work) these images are so visually distinctive that the captions are almost optional.
So what have I learned? Mainly that a visually distinctive set of subjects makes the whole enterprise so much easier! The pentecostal church that I am capturing, however, has much more in common with the Mormons than the Palo or the Hasidic Jews. This means that I will have to work a little harder to make the images visually arresting. And I will need to rely on captions to put the images in context for the viewer.
I’ve also learned that a mixture of viewpoints, compositional techniques and focal lengths helps to bring a sense of visual variety – and consequently a narrative thrust – to a photo essay.
http://www.jansochor.com/photo-essay/palo-african-ritual-in-cuba (accessed 19/02/2016)
http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1903792,00.html (accessed 19/02/2016)
http://www.chloedewemathews.com/hasidic-holiday/ (accessed 19/02/2016)