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Photography and Faith

17 • 11 • 20Zoltán Körösvölgyi

“Both religion and art require belief for them to work,”[1] writes Daniel A. Siedell. For the Eucharist to fulfil its function, he says, the recipient needs to believe that the wine is the blood of Christ, the wafer his body; in a similar vein, the viewer of an artwork must believe that the paint smeared on the canvas means something. It takes faith to appreciate a photographed image: faith in the photographer, in her intent, in there being a meaning to what we see. Which of course brings us back to the similarity between the respective workings of faith and art. Having spent years with the study of the relationship of religion, spiritual experience and art—an elusive subject whose assessment is undergoing change—I hardly find this surprising. Nor should anyone do so in the age of postsecularism.[2]

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie Oselyata, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

In recent years there have been a number of exhibitions and projects in Hungary that have taken a photographic look at the functioning, instruments, institutions and reception of religion, faith, spirituality. Cases in point include such series as Boglárka Éva Zellei’s Furnishing the Sacred and Seekers, Fanni Luzsicza’s ن and Pax et Bonum, and Antal Bánhegyesy’s Orthodoxia. Eszter Asszonyi’s diploma project, still in progress, explores reflective spirituality and female rites. Along with Zellei, Péter Németh Sz., Ákos Stiller and Éva Szombat were also featured at this years Guest+Appearance, an already reviewed group exhibition in Pannonhalma. All these series are based on extensive artistic research, and investigate religion, religiousness, and spirituality, along with how these are experienced, lived through and practised, or how they relate to broader social phenomena or the aesthetic of day-to-day life. The methods of such artistic research include documentation and fact-finding, and often rely on the subjects’ participation.

In 2014 Eileen D. Crowley looked at how, as a spiritual practice, photography can shape faith and aid its practice.[3] She reminds us that in addition to being a “disposable consumer commodity in an instant-gratification society” (consider the images taken with mobile phone cameras, instantly posted in social media, only to remain mostly unnoticed, and soon forgotten by their makers), photography—the act and practice of creating and sharing mediated artworks—is utterly everyday and normal, a natural part of the participative culture[4] of our time.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie Oselyata, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

The question of photography and faith, however, appears also beyond the everyday. As guest editor of Aperture Magazine #237: Spirituality, published in December 2019, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans explains his choice of subject thus: “I immediately knew that it should be spirituality… because I strongly sense that the political shifts in Western society in the last ten years stem from a lack of meaning in the capitalist world.”[5] The questions Tillmans raises and discusses concern, on the one hand, human relations as a form of spiritual engagement, and on the other, the fusion of spirituality and solidarity, a notion introduced by Tony Fry in his discussion of sacred design.[6]

In the same issue of Aperture, Swedish philosopher and literary theorist Martin Hägglund asks Tillmans whether he sees the (re)creation of the social connection, a possible reading of his oeuvre, as part of his task as a photographer. Tillmans says he sees photography as an expression of “how we look at things,” which in his opinion should be non-judgemental.[7] The key concept for him is fragility, which is almost completely rejected by the idealised images of capitalism and commercial pop culture (what Márton Szentpéteri calls total aestheticization[8]). As a result, says Tillmans, the terror of perfect images leaves people on their own with the feeling of their own fragility, as if it were a bad thing, instead of highlighting the strength inherent in connecting to one’s fragility.[9] It is probably no coincidence that Tillmans used the alias, fragile in the 1980s, just as it was the title of his 2018–2019 solo exhibition, which was presented at multiple venues.

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"Spirituality" issue of Aperture Magazine, Winter 2019.

This growing awareness of our fragility may stem from a wider understanding of the escalating climate crisis, the global pandemic, the increase of inequality, the waves of economic crises, the intensifying social inequalities, the deterioration of living conditions on Earth, the absence of sustainability and of a vision of the future. All this, however, may prove insufficient on a social or global scale. For the real experience of fragility, often an even more radical approach may be needed, one that may be related to spirituality.

The photographs of Robin Alysha Clemens, a young graduate of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, provide a dramatic example with her images, even if the events they depict are less shocking. Like the Hungarian photographers mentioned, the Amsterdam-based photographer seeks to give expression to the presence of communality, the identity of belonging. There is a dramatic quality to her images—in the theatrical, or rather, cinematic, sense of the expression. Her flair for strong contrast brings in mind chiaroscuro, whose technique was introduced during the Renaissance, and George de la Tour’s Baroque paintings seem particularly close. Using the natural illumination that is available on location to capture scenes that are usually spontaneous, she still succeeds in turning the light into a prominent component of the image.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie Oselyata, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie Oselyata, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie Oselyata, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Oselyata takes a look at a community of former homeless persons, who share a house in Vynnyky, Ukraine. They call themselves Oselyata (which is derived from the word for “home”), and form a real community, living in peace and security, in a simple manner, following simple rules. Owned By No One introduces a subculture whose members seek complete anonymity to rediscover their own identity in a world where information has become a commodity and privacy is endangered. While the lives of these two series’ subjects can be seen as being informed by a certain religiousness, what seems of particular interest for our investigation is “Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo” (I Am Another You, You Are Another I).

The series was made in Mexico, where different religious traditions and beliefs intermingle and mutate, from Mayan and Aztec traditions to the Catholicism imported by the Spanish conquerors, from the African and Latin American beliefs of the slaves, to North American cultural influences. With the project, Clemens studies the Mexicans and their faith. With this look at the diversity of contemporary Mexican spirituality, we are introduced to practices we have been unaware of, and we can see how surprisingly similar they sometimes are. Instead of altars, icons, and other religious symbols belonging to material culture, we can see portraits that show the people behind the belief systems. We can see the subjects of an exorcism through prayer, the use of consecrated oil and the Bible; the portrait of a brujo witch master who engages in both black and white magic; a young woman with some of her tattoos dedicated to Santa Muerte, and an upside-down cross in honour of Satan; a traditional healer from the Seri tribe; a full-time spiritual healer woman; a young Catholic poet who considers the unity of different cultures as the basis of his art; worshippers holding statues of St. Judas Taddeus, the saint of the hopeless and the desperate, while a Catholic priest blesses them with holy water; a man kneeling in prayer at the basilica erected to commemorate the first apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, built on the site of the former Aztec Tonantzin Shrine, and of paramount importance to the Mexican Indian population; a granicero healer in his cave; and young Nazarenes praying together.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie 'Owned By No One', 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie 'Owned By No One', 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

In addition to the portraits, there are what look like genre scenes; however, there is no artificiality to either type of images, with the situations, the people, and the dramatic use of light having a natural, self-consistent feel. This impression is reinforced by Clemens’ statement that she sees her photographic work as an anthropological tool in the study of cultures, identities, traditions, and the symbols associated with them. Like Tillmans above, she claims to be seeking to portray people as individuals, not as caricatures of the ideologies they represent.[10]

Why do we look at these pictures? Why do we find them interesting? On the one hand, trivial as it sounds, we do because they are photographs: images communicated and communicating through a medium and language that we have widely learned to “read,” understand, appreciate, and consider authentic. On the other hand, the same language allows these images to touch us and become etched in our memory as we become witnesses to situations and life stories, as we peek behind walls. Additionally, the authenticity and effectiveness of these photographs cause their viewers to become more readily involved, find an illusion of participation. With Clemens, we can start thinking about how we relate to the belief system we have inherited or found, to our own identity. Are we as cognizant as the Mexicans she portrayed? Do these hold a similar value for us?

 

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie 'Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo', 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie 'Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo', 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie 'Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo', 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Should there be a need to argue for photography as a valid form of art, one could insist that over and above the interest of creative positions, the perennial dilemma of the photographer’s role, the functional documentation of the individual (person, action, phenomenon), photography is also capable of showing the general in the individual, in an authentic manner that interests contemporary man. It can make tangible the examples and praxes of age-old stories and mythologies, reveal such readings of these that transcend through the ages—indeed, translate, if such be the case, faith in religion into faith in the work of art. Photography has a place in religion, in the places and surfaces of worship, as well as in the artistic representation of spiritual experience, in the spaces of art.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie 'Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo', 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

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Robin Alysha Clemens: from the serie 'Yo soy otro tú, tú eres otro yo', 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Jegyzetek

[1] Daniel A. Siedell: “Liturgical Aesthetics and Contemporary Artistic Practice: Some Remarks on Developing a Critical Framework.” In: Ronald R. Bernier (ed.): Beyond Belief: Theoaesthetics or Just Old-Time Religion? Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2010, 11.

[2] Used in sociology, theology, political, art and literary theory, along with other disciplines, the term is usually attributed to philosopher Jürgen Habermas. It denotes the idea that secularization seems to be in decline, is occasionally morally unsuccessful, and consequently the separation of faith and reason, ushered in with the Enlightenment, should give way to a new, peaceful dialogue and tolerant coexistence for the sake of mutual learning and enrichment. The essay that was based on the lecture in which the term was originally used: Jürgen Habermas: “Die Dialektik der Säkularisierung.” Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, no. 4 (2008), 33–46.

[3] Eileen D. Crowley: “‘Using New Eyes’: Photography as a Spiritual Practice for Faith Formation and Worship.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 53:1 (Spring 2014, March), 30–40.

[4] The notion of participative culture was introduced by Henry Jenkins in 2009. Cf. Henry Jenkins with Ravi Rurushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton and Alice J. Robison: Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

[5] “Editor’s Note.” Aperture Magazine 237 (Winter 2019), 23.

[6] Fry highlights the commonalities of the sacred and design, “understood futurally and ethically (rather than historically and religiously).” Cf. Tony Fry: “Returning: Sacred Design III.” Design Philosophy Papers, 8:1 (2010), 33.

[7] “Spirituality is Solidarity: Wolfgang Tillmans and Martin Hägglund in Conversation.” Aperture Magazine 237 (Winter 2019), 36.

[8] Cf. Márton Szentpéteri: “Design vagy iparművészet? Fogalomtörténeti vázlat.” Korunk 2017:10, 39–45.

[9] Ibid. 37.

[10] Heming Liu, „Women Crush Wednesday: Robin Alysha Clemens”, Musée – Vanguard of Photography Culture, April 15, 2020.