1. No pictures, please!
“Needing to have reality confirmed
and experience enhanced by photographs
is an aesthetic consumerism
to which everyone is now addicted.”
We live in a very visual world. There is almost no mystery left; everything is made visible. By bringing it to light (developing the negatives), the positives reveal, what we interpret as truth, reality or experience. We have seen pictures of the surface of planet mars. And even knowing, no human being has ever been there, we state, that it is true and real. We believe, because we have seen it. It is almost like John 20:24-29. The urge of doubting Thomas to see arises from his longing to find out the truth, or how Susan Sontag puts it, to “have reality confirmed and experience enhanced.”
There are almost no barriers for visual documentation: ultrasonic sound pictures show tiny embryos and security cameras are monitoring and observing stores and public places. But this visual documentation is not only entrusted with professionals like photographers, camera operators or CCTV technicians. Through the widespread opportunities of image recording in cameras, cell phones and other mobile devices, the participation in this process is widespread too.
Random eye-witnesses provide footage of the an airplane landing in Hudson River, New York, the bombings at Boston marathon or the riots in Egypt’s capitol Cairo.
Common people become paparazzi, reporters and chroniclers. They visualize their world and offer access into their space of truth, reality and experience to others. We are used to it and utilize different tools and gadgets to gain this very access.
This is why we are shocked when this access is not allowed. In some rare spaces capturing a photo is not allowed. It almost seems, as if the prohibition itself creates a mystery. It is not only about the subject to be photographed, but more about the ban to visually conserve it.
Churches are one of the few places, where taking pictures is not generally allowed or only tolerated with resentment.
During our reading last semester, we studied David Morgan’s “The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice.“ For Morgan, seeing is one of, if not the most important sense. But he constructs a unique definition of seeing. It is not only the ability to see via visual awareness. Seeing, Morgan argues, should be “understood as a great variety of visual practices, forms of engagement with oneself, with others, with the past, with the worlds engaging viewers as viewers look at them in one manner or another.” (p.2) This reduction to the sense of seeing is an upgrading for our visual cognition. And it characterizes Morgan’s description of our reception as people, living in an occularcentristic culture. “As a species, humans rely disproportionately on visual information because our neural network is preponderantly dedicated to processing visual stimuli.“ (p.39)
This approach is similar to visual ethnographer Sarah Pink, since she shares Morgan’s visual centering: “Images are ‘everywhere’. They permeate our academic work, everyday lives, conversations and dreams.” (p.17) In her methodology of visual ethnography, Pink encourages the use of visual methods “creatively developed within individual projects.” (p.4.) She also, like Morgan, attempts to blur the distinctions between observer (ethnographer) and photographer. This is done by offering the truth, reality and experience of individuals in specific cultural contexts.
2. London – What you see is what you get
„Photographs […] help people to take possession of space in
which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem
with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism.
For the first time in history, large numbers of people regularly
travel out of their habitual environments for short periods of time.
It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking
a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence
that the trip was made, that the program was carried out,
that fun was had. […]A way of certifying experience,
taking photographs is also a way of refusing it
- by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic,
by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.“
During our study trip to London we were asked to capture our experiences visually to present them later on in a visual ethnography, following the steps, we worked through in Sarah Pink’s books “Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research“ and „Doing Sensory Ethnography“and put her theory into practice.
Being all geared up with a camera and my cell phone I had several devices to visually capture my surrounding. It was interesting to me, that the most interesting places to me, did explicitly not allow photography or photography using a flash:
Religious places like Saints Pauls Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, touristy places like the London tower, economic places like Lloyds of London or commercial places like London’s most famous department store Harrods.
Morgan and Pink advocate for a reflexivity and subjectivity in visual contexts. But what happens, if those exchanges are not permeable and accessible? Through the prohibition of a visual recording, our capacities to capture are very limited. We are still able to see, but not to conserve.
Sarah Pink also refers to the appropriateness and role of visual technologies (p.34), but in these situations, some other level is obvious. It was not only about the missing permission to takes pictures; it was also not appropriate, fitting or suitable in the context.
To sense this inappropriateness, one can reply on the multitude of signs in a lot of churches, tourist venues or public spaces, mentioning, that photographing is not allowed or favored. But even without visible logos and signs some can sense this inappropriateness by analyzing the context.
Is it appropriate to take pictures during a service? Is it suitable to record praying strangers in a church, during this intimate spiritual act? Is it fitting to disturb others by hasty moving or clicking sounds for multimedia coverage?
Following Morgan’s and Pink’s thoughts on reflexivity and subjectivity this influence is also not only reduced to the photographer on the others, but also on the photographer himself or herself. In some cases, the person, taking pictures, does so, to capture and conserve, but is distracted by the act itself. This distraction keeps them from being present.
So what is real “truth” in these situations? The picture taken, displaying a certain scenario or a person, who is not conserving, by being fully present without any distraction?
These questions lead to the topic of sustainability. What is lasting? A photo or a vibrant memory? The technical storage of information or the full awareness of the situation with all senses and without being distracted?
“Today everything exists
to end in a photograph.”
Thinking back to London, I don’t remember any particular photos I took, but more incidents, encounters, stories and pictures I conserved within me, with my inner camera, while being fully present: A certain taste, a smell, the sound of a voice and how I felt, warm, cold, bored, inspired.
Some of the memories deal with sustainability too.
For example we met Reverend Jeremy Crossly, Rector of St. Mary Lothbury and St. Mary Woolnoth. Located in the very city center von London, the church feels called to minister, those who work about one square mile around the churches, in the finance district. To me, Reverend Jeremy was the most inspirational person during our stay of the study trip. He freely shared about his ministry and the way his church reaches out to stockbrokers, traders and other people in the finance sector. He told us about the way, the congregation needed to change, to become an attractive place to those people working around. “We need to stay flexible,” he said. On one of the advertising posters in front of the church, where thousands pass by each to get to their work, it says: “Come & go as you wish.”
This attitude was very impressing to me. Not to cling to old traditions, habits and structures but to be inspired by the surrounding people, to adjust to their work schedule, lifestyle, longings and problems. To sustain and to endure in the long run, Reverend Jeremy advised to stay flexible: Transformation as the key to sustainability.
On the other hand, we met Reverend Prebendary Nick Mercer of St. Pauls, London. He told us about the long history of the building, lasting through times of war and peace. It almost seemed, as if nothing had changed during the centuries. At the end of our visit, we had the honor to sit in the choir stalls during the evensong. This high church liturgy out of the traditional prayer books dates back several hundred years. Here it seems, as if the perseverance, loyalty to tradition and liturgical orthodoxy ensured sustainability. Everything seems to be untouched, but still it appears to be attractive to visitors. People were queuing just to gain entrance to the evensong services.
Is transformation the key to sustainability or perseverance, which stimulates long-term sustainability?
“All photographs are memento mori.
To take a photograph is to participate
in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality,
Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it,
all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
In the process of capturing experiences in pictures, we seek to conserve despite all momentariness and perishableness.
Twisted between the approach to conserve and trap it on celluloid, memory cards or the cloud we are still free to choose pure presence. This might offer a different value of sustainability. Not in a documenting, testimoning and evidential way, but though being, existing aware and present: Using all senses to access the moment.
In my church, this indecision always occurres in a drastic way during services at special events, like weddings or baptisms. Church attendants, the parents of the child to be baptized, the bridal couple; they all want take pictures. And most of the times, they ask beforehand.
“Can we take pictures?” - What is the right answer?
Earlier, we already learned through Susan Sontag and David Morgan, that we live in an “occularcentristic culture” where visuals and conserving these visuals is a common habit. Through Sarah Pink, we learned that visuals reveal a lot about a social or cultural setting.
But what does is say about a lot of churches, as settings for important experiences and celebrations of important dates in life, if they strictly forbid photography? Is it visual hostility or the denial of the value of visuality?
In my ministry context I found out, that it is only appropriate to prohibit photography, if I am able to offer other ways of “conserving”. In my preliminary talks I always bring this topic up. I invite the attendants to be fully present and to try to enjoy the service without any technical distractions. After the service itself, they are still welcome to take pictures.
But this way of dealing with photography in church also means, that the pastor is also called to provide visuals, which are sustainable and conservable without multimedia coverage. During sermon preparation I always ask myself: which pictures can the attendants take home? Which visuals might stick in their head? Is the service pictorial and sensual enough?
This links well with David Morgan, when we describes vision and imagery and how
images and religious belief relate. Morgan analyses how, in our “visual culture”, art and theology are linked. This can also be stimulated by narrative theology and pictorial sermons or a visual service (screening videos or using art). Morgan states, that visuals can be absorbed in a passive way (reception) or with an active approach (creation/production). (p.39)
The idea of capturing the scene in a photo versus pure presence to archive a higher sustainability can also be linked with the idea of sustainability in the churches I visited in London.
Is it about conserving and capturing the moment for eternity (like in St. Pauls) or about being present and being flexible (like in St. Mary Lothbury and St. Mary Woolnoth?).
I took from our study trip to London the increased awareness to the sacredness of places, especially churches. I realized once more how valuable contemplation and attentiveness are and I recognized, the benefit of consciously neglecting the urge to take pictures. On the other hand, I would really like to offer other ways to sustain visuals in services, sacred moments and prayers for the people I minister to, to pass on this mindset (not in a hostile way towards technic and photography, but in a appreciating way of sacred spaces and “inner photography”).
For this visual ethnography synthesis I chose David Morgan and Sarah Pink because they address, my aimed topic the best. During our last semester we also read other inspiring books, I valued a lot, like Charlene Li’s “Open Leadership. How social technology can transform the way you lead” and “Exit, Voice and Loyality. Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States” by Albert O. Hirschmann. They have been the most inspiring books to me: Charlene Li with her interdisciplinary approach from communication science and linking social media with organization management and leadership as well as Albert Hirschmann with his participation analysis of members in organizations with his three big categories “exit, voice and loyalty.”