OBSERVATIONS VOL. 3, NO. 1 2018
REFLECTIONS ON FAITH FROM MEMBERS OF OBSERVE COLLECTIVE
KRISTIN VAN DEN EEDE
88 TOM YOUNG
On faith and photography
As temperatures are breaking records across the world, tensions are building between ethnic and religious groups, and politicians are making a mockery of themselves, one thing is crystal clear: we are all in dire need of faith. In the most straightforward sense of the word, most of us actually do have faith. According to Pew Research, no less than 84% of the world population identifies with a religious group. That’s a lot of faith. But faith is also broader and more elusive than that. In this sense, it is about having confidence in something or someone. In yourself. In your partner. In love. “Faith is permitting ourselves to be seized by the things we do not see”, Protestant hero Martin Luther claimed about 500 years ago. If we follow his reasoning, any attempt to capture faith in images is an attempt to capture what we cannot see. Quite the challenge, for a visual medium. For this issue of Observations, we took on this challenge and went in search of our own faith—or lack thereof. As each of us progressed on this journey, it became clear that faith can be interpreted in many more ways. Ask 12 people to reflect on the concept of faith and distill their thoughts into images, and you will get 12 different stories, each with an entirely unique interpretation. So join us in our stories, face this challenge together with us, and venture into the unseen.
While it is often thought that spirituality has to do mainly with religion, there are many other less obvious aspects of spirituality. Spirituality is also defined as wellness of the mind, body, and soul. It is where we can find meaning, where we feel connected, and it goes beyond what can be seen. Religion can also give us a sense of connection, joining us within an established set of beliefs, rules, rituals and traditions. Religion helps people define what is right and wrong, true and false. Both spirituality and religion focus on our individual beliefs, comfort, ethics and reflection, which contributes to our overall wellness and peace of mind. Being connected religiously and spiritually can provide people with reassurance, hope, and comfort, even through the most difficult situations, such as living with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. My mother has always been grounded in both religion and spirituality. Growing up, she would tell me of experiences when she’d been younger and practiced relaxation techniques, where she’d leave her body and float above it. And every night, even now with her dementia, she doesn’t forget to say her prayers. After contracting polio when she was very young, she thought she would die and she witnessed many other children in her hospital ward pass away. She prayed to her god desperately, and after surviving what seemed like the impossible, her faith was once again restored. She would always tell me when I was younger, “Larry, whenever I lose something I just pray to God, ‘Please help me find it,’ and I do.”
BREVARD, UNITED STATES
One definition of faith is having complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Without it, we could not live. We assume that the airplane we are on will become airborne and take us safely to our destination. We have faith that the car will start, the brakes will work and the traffic signals will function properly to take us to the barber, who in turn will not cut off an ear, only some hair. A woman carries an unborn child in her womb with the faith that it will be born normal and live a rich life. All of our activities require a degree of trust that we will achieve our intended goal without incident. As one who has spent a lifetime relying on scientific process, religious faith is a bit murky. Perhaps that is why I am a photographer rather than a painter. In its purest form, photography is truth. It shows what something looked like in two dimensions at a particular moment. Photography is science. Our canvas is not blank. There must be something in front of the lens to create a photograph. But as photographers, through our skills and process of selection, we can suggest meaning beyond the literal. As some like to say, â€œtell a story.â€? Sadly, a still photograph is anemic in its storytelling capabilities. A story involves a passage of time, a still photograph represents a mere fraction of time. There are no stories here, only enigma.
MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM
Faith /feɪθ/ noun noun: faith 1. complete trust or confidence in someone “or” something. “this restores one’s faith in politicians” synonyms: trust, belief, confidence, conviction, credence, reliance, dependence; antonyms: mistrust 2. strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. “bereaved people who have shown supreme faith” synonyms: religion, church, sect, denomination, persuasion, religious persuasion, religious belief, belief, code of belief, ideology, creed, teaching, dogma, doctrine”she gave her life for her faith”
SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
Way back in my past life when I was a street musician, my girlfriend and I were basking on the local pedestrian zone on Fokina street of Vladivostok (Far East of Russia). It was a nice spring day, the sun was shining, birds were chirping, and we played our flutes as if we were two birds as well. Suddenly two girls approached us. They were listening to our music and after a while they came closer and asked, “Do you mind if we talk with you?” Their eyes were like small leaden lakes. “No,” I said, “We don’t mind.” They asked one insignificant question, then another, and then: “What are you preaching with your music?” “Nothing at all, we are just playing.” “But you worship God?” “No, we don’t, we are happy without it.” As our conversation continued, the girls looked more and more surprised, their eyes bugging out. “But you must believe in some god???” “No, we don’t believe in any god, we are agnostics.” Having heard this, they smiled with triumph: “So you worship the god Agnost!” I laughed but I was also grateful—she gave to me and to the world a new god, Agnost (and also Gnost and Diagnost, the whole Trinity). But to speak more seriously, I’m an agnostic indeed. I was never able to understand how a person could believe in a dogma. For me it was always obvious that the world is unknowable and there is no sense in claiming something to be the Truth, because we cannot know it for sure. Consequently the fact that there are so many followers of different teachings and religions seemed amazing to me, and finally I decided to explore it. I visited different churches and temples and tried to make a composite portrait of modern believers in a big city.
When I was making this project, I was strongly influenced by the works of Carl Gustav Jung. He wrote that it isnâ€™t important if a religious statement is true or not. The verity of a metaphysical statement can never be proved or disproved, but the statement itself is a very important reflection of the psychic life of many people. Itâ€™s obvious also that people who visit different churches could have all kinds of different motivations. Some of them just want to feel part of a community, others donâ€™t want to be responsible for their own life. And in some of them, real spiritual work happens. The problem is that you cannot tell it from the outside. The goal of this work is to show, on one hand, how a modern believer looks to a bystander and, on the other, to demonstrate that there are many possibilities for leading a spiritual life in a modern metropolis and none of them can be considered true or false.
KRISTIN VAN DEN EEDE
If only the dead could talk, what stories they would tell. They can’t. And they wouldn’t. They are long gone, and all that’s left of them is some withered shell on a tombstone, faces slowly eroding, eyes fixed on eternity. These photos seek to recover what is lost, to restore faces that have worn away after a few generations. It took no more than that for these people to become forgotten, and it will take no more than that for us. We are all here for a short time, and then we’re gone. Left in the dirt, covered in vines, faceless and cold. These pictures were all taken on All Saints’ Day 2017, between sunrise and sunset, at the largest and most beautiful garden cemetery in my town, the Westerbegraafplaats in Ghent, Belgium. While more recent graves had scores of visitors, the residents of these older monumental tombs and vaults had none; their eyes turned only to me. Every person depicted has their own story to tell, and they tell part of it here.
KRISTIN VAN DEN EEDE
KRISTIN VAN DEN EEDE
KRISTIN VAN DEN EEDE
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRASIL
Pai-de-santo and mãe-de-santo are the male and female priests in Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé. They literally translate as “father-of-saints” and “mother-of-saints.” In ritual ceremonies, like in the popular celebration of Iemanjá shown in these photos, they represent a line of communication between our material world and the spiritual world of the orixás—the divinities in the Yorubá religion.
I’m not the religious type, but my parents definitely were. That meant going to church every Sunday, praying before dinner, and, of course, strictly following the Ten Commandments. To me it felt like devolving into a backward-looking, ritualized life amidst the so-called economic miracle that took place at the time. Belief in authority and Prussian virtues such as diligence and discipline seem to have been genetically coded into the stereotypical German. Maybe that is why my parents’ generation managed to find balance, by creating a worldly counterweight to the ecclesial routine. I don’t wish to sound too idealistic, but I am under the impression that the vision of unlimited capitalist growth made possible by free markets and democracy certainly fueled these efforts to some extent. Well, that and the habit of not questioning the system. Before 1968, no one would seriously doubt any of the decisions of the Catholic Church or the conservative party. Until this day, I can’t help but think that the leaders of religious communities, political parties or basically any other large organization are more interested in keeping their respective statuses and power than creating true moral values. I don’t really mind people frequenting temples of whatever sort or loudly praying to a higher entity. Everybody needs their spiritual moments in life to regain their strength from time to time. To me, however, place and ritual are not that important. Still, we should be mindful of governments or political groups abusing religion for their own purposes. If history has taught us anything, I’d say it’s “Don’t mix political chauvinism, nationalism and religious fanaticism! Otherwise, you might want to look for some remote island to grow old on….” Be that as it may, I try to keep believing in God, or at least the good in all of us every day, because if God still wants to save this world, (s)he’d better start by tomorrow.
For your pleasure, I would like to offer you one of my favorite dialogues in Joseph Heller’s famous book, “Catch 22,” when the bomber pilot Yossarian was lying in bed with Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s(!!) wife: “Be thankful you’re healthy.” “Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.” “Be glad you’re even alive.” “Be furious you’re going to die.”
“Don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued… “There’s nothing mysterious about it, He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about, a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of Creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?” And what a wonderful statement by Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife, following up: “The God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.” This sounds fantastic!
BOSTON, UNITED STATES
Through all the turbulence and uncertainty of this world, one thing I have absolute faith in is my marriage with Molly, to whom I’ve been married for 28 years. Through my marriage, I’ve learned the meaning of faith. Words like trust and forgiveness were abstract ideals before I was married. Molly allows me to grow in ways I’m not capable of alone. She teaches me about myself. She allows me to be vulnerable; she provides me the courage to be strong. I’ve learned more about the lessons of the Bible through my marriage than I ever learned in church. My marriage brings me closer to god. It created life and it survives loss. My marriage is my religion.
Saint Lucia, 1989
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL
I am not a religious person, but I am a believer. I have my roots in a religious family; some might call it devout. But in a long process that went on for generations, and after several crises of faith, my family became secular. But this does not mean I’m not a believer. I am a great believer in man, in goodness, in compassion, and in truth. I believe in science and I believe in art. The traits that sometimes seem so important to Orthodoxy are those that keep me away from religion. The same traits that differentiate them from other groups. It is the right of every person to live in their faith and to express their own way.
“I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self defense, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, which ought to have ruled, plays the pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy—they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long.” —Edward Morgan Forster
BALTIMORE, UNITED STATES
I’m grateful to have a camera that moves to the light I see and a flash for when there isn’t any. Faith is more tenuous than it appears, but I have faith in me and that. Currently.
Living in Ireland, faith—specifically the Catholic faith—has historically been an integral part of day-to-day life. Although my parents were not Irish they both came from a Catholic background and thus adapted sufficiently to Irish expectations of faith. I went to a Catholic school and worked my way through the sacraments and took it upon myself to go to Mass, but only because a Nun in school began to grill us on the details of the previous Sunday’s Gospel to check that we had attended. As I got older it became easy to let the traditional rituals fall by the wayside, but something strong stayed, though I am not sure if the mystery I feel is just intrigue or something spiritual. During my earliest outings with a camera, shooting crosses, statues, religious icons, and graveyards always gave me a buzz, as they still do all these years later. Anything religious is photo catnip to me. The resulting photos are often dull or samey, but I can’t resist taking them. I love Religious art and collect rosary beads and crucifixes, but perhaps this has more to do with the iconography as, paradoxically, I chose not to get married in a Church and don’t attend Mass regularly. Exodus 20:2-4 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Do not have other gods before me. Do not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Now that we have children, we are also bringing them up as Catholics, but again I am not fully sure how faith-driven my reasons are. The school being Catholic was a factor, fitting in was a factor, but having something to fall back on or turn to if they choose to in the future also must have been a reason. The first Communion is seen as a great day out and family event; a lot of girls in particular love to dress up for the occasion in a traditional white dress. But after seeing the image on the necklaces (pictured below), it bothered some of my colleagues with its â€œbrides of Christâ€? implications that were not even on my radar. I actually find it a nice, important, and spiritual event and didnâ€™t give a second thought whether they should take part. Which makes me wonder: is my Faith stronger than I realize? Hebrews 11:1 Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith? As a kid, my mother would often take me along with her to church on Sundays, though she wouldn’t force me to sit through services. Instead, I would usually end up in the daycare in the church basement. Playing alone with toys seemed infinitely preferable to listening to sermons about God. This idea of a manshaped being, up in the sky, tossing around directives, judging everyone, never made sense to me. Thirty years later, my attitude towards Christianity has refined itself a bit, but is basically the same. It seems more likely to me that man created God rather than the other way around. The idea of my consciousness (or “soul,” perhaps) being a singularity that carries on after my death, more or less as I know myself now, seems an absurdity to me. I imagine my energy will continue, but that the atoms I‘ve been loaned for this life will be reconstituted as a multitude of different things. I don’t know exactly what that would mean for me, or indeed for any of us, if I’m right. I imagine that probably, once the heart stops beating, that’s it for this consciousness of mine. Nothing integral to my being will continue after that light goes out. No reincarnation into some other single entity, no heavenly afterlife, no holy ascension into God’s light. But I think I’m all right with that. There doesn’t need to be anything more than this, not for my own ego, anyway. I’d rather do what I can to make this short blink of time that I inhabit a better one for those I share it with. What happens afterwards is up to the universe. And I know it will go on without me. I guess that’s something I do have faith in.
ÂŠ 2018 Observe Collective All images in this issue are the property of the respective photographer and cannot be reproduced without the express consent of the copyright holder. No part of this magazine may be used in part or in full without the express written permission of Observe Collective.
Reflections on faith from members of Observe Collective