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Is Photography Too Human to be Holy?

Most of the photographs put up during Easter could double as an argument against religion–and for anthropology. Spiritual yearning is reduced to cultural performances characterized by pre-modern costumes, ritual processions, and other forms of excess. But then I saw this:

This photograph doesn’t break with the prevailing conventions for documenting religious spectacles, but it gets past them to touch some basic questions about both photography and religious experience.

You are looking at Despina, an 89-year-old Greek Orthodox nun in Northern Cyprus. You can’t see the candles she is lighting, but perhaps you can see their light reflected in her face. Or would, if you could get past looking at her face. Cowled in black, without visible hair and certainly without feminine makeup, her person is concentrated in her face. But you probably looked at her face, rather than into it, because you were scandalized by the wrinkles etched into her flesh like deep channels on a barren planet. Add the enlarged nose and blotched skin, and aging is staring you in the face.

Photography, Susan Sontag reminded us, has been keeping company with death from the beginning, and this photo seems a stark testament to the art’s insistent revelation of human mortality. Photography is being featured because of the contrast between the sharp clarity of her image with the painted icons stacked on the wall behind her. They are antique and at once hazy and luminescent, and so easily symbolize religion as an institution. Now think of Walter Benjamin’s insight that the aura of a work of art is deeply embedded in the fabric of tradition. In this photograph, the aura of religion is deeply embedded in the fabric of tradition. But the photograph itself does not have an aura, nor does Despina due to the stark clarity of her image.

Thus, the photograph contrasts two arts and two conceptions of religious experience: religion as the luminous representation of the divine, and faith as a personal encounter with mortality. One is set in the rear of the picture, painting rather than photography, and the past; the other is set in the front of the picture, in the photograph itself, and in the present. The first view of religion is a nostalgic image–literally bathing the icons in a warm glow as they recede in ascending order toward the vanishing point. The second view is critical–the icons will outlast her, and perhaps her vocation, and nothing she believes will change her mortality and perhaps the passing of all human things, including the church.

But it’s not quite that simple. By positioning the icons behind her head, they provide her with a faint aura. And the contrast between the two media can go a step further: each represents different ways of seeing and thinking. The religious icon is never one thing–it is both material and spiritual–and it is a pedagogy of immanence–of seeing God in all things. Those habituated to Western painting and a doctrine of transcendence learn to see differently, and that can include a sharper distinction between material and spiritual realities. Say, between the sharp image of an individual human face riven with aging, and a hazy image of God placed in a separate sacred space.

And so look at the photograph one more time. See how she is set in a series with the icons behind her. One might say, with the other icons. If we were to look at her as if she were a religious icon, that is, within the Greek Orthodox optic, we might see that she is much more than one thing.

Photograph by Murad Sezer /Reuters.


Is Photography Too Human to be Holy?


7 Responses

  1. fiddlergene says

    I love to read about how people of ideas conceptualize what a photographer gets intuitively in his/her images. So often I lurk behind viewers as they look at my work hanging on a gallery wall, or examine a page of one of my books of images and I eavesdrop on what they are saying just to find out exactly what I have done to make the image work. And I walk away thinking “Gee, I wish I had done that.”

  2. Lucaites says

    Fiddlergene: Your point is very well taken. As with all great art, the artists intention is far less important than what the artwork shows, or what viewers see and experience. We often think about what artists can teach us — and there is plenty — but we tend to forget that artists too can learn a good deal from how their work is interpreted, engaged, and otherwise “used.” Photography — especially in its photojournalistic register — might be special in this regard as it is a “public” art form, and thus its significance is an almost necessary function of the relationship between the photographer’s effort, the actual event photographed, and the public of viewers that all see it.

  3. BamaGuy says

    Fantastic. This post is a wonderful example of why I visit your site every day. An incredible image and truly insightful commentary – Many Thanks for this intelligent blog! Craig

  4. caitlinb says

    I’d agree with the majority of the arguments in this post; that the photograph captures the doubling of an image of witnessing and then the icons signifying a divine made immanent, and the multiple interpretations that one could glean from the photo.

    Where I would depart is the categorization of the picture as scandalous, if we read scandal to mean outside the habitual conventions of documentary photography, insofar as aging and mortality are exceptions. Probably in the context of advertising where physical signs of age are combatted via editing or posited explicitly as negative, but in the context of religious (and here I can only speak to western catholic) photos the signs of age, suffering, visible signs of a mortal body are not uncommon- see the link to a Mother Theresa portrait, which compositionally is similar to the above picture

    Is what is scandalous that something as universal and inevitable as aging still inspires a sense of horror in the viewer? Or that it exposes that the image (icon in this instance but photographic image potentially) even as it captures an ideal moment cannot control the material effects of time marching on– that the technological capacity to capture the world in a image cannot determine its futurity?

    What the notion of scandal does do is raise the question of to what degree religious viewing practices have been secularized, and made subordinate to the dictates of a beauty myth that privileges unblemished youth. Or, how totalizing Benjamin’s prediction of the loss of aura is when ritual viewing, kissing, and praying before icons continues to be practiced by large populations.

  5. Greg says

    From the etymology dictionary:scandal
    1581, “discredit caused by irreligious conduct,” from M.Fr. scandale, from L.L. scandalum “cause for offense, stumbling block, temptation,” from Gk. skandalon “stumbling block,” originally “trap with a springing device,” from PIE *skand- “jump” (see scan; cf. also slander). Attested from c.1225, but the modern word is a reborrowing. Meaning “malicious gossip” is from 1596; sense of “person whose conduct is a disgrace” is from 1634.

    Each of these definitions offers a multitude of interpretations. Scandals in the sense of stumbling blocks, temptations, and offenses are the material experiences in life that create wrinkles and faces. Scandal in the sense of irreligious behavior, is also intriguing: either our own for seeing age before we even register that she is a nun, or perhaps her own. Might she be feeling doubt after a lifetime of lighting such candles in front of such portraits of such men? But, of course, the photograph itself as scandalous is another matter.

    Why do some scandals enrage and move people to action? Yet other scandals fail to do so? The very word almost implies a temporary concern that will soon pass: Clinton’s Travelgate, Palin’s Troopergate, any number of nannygates? Scandal seems too imprecise a word. Is anyone truly “scandalized” by age on the face of the aged? Certainly we are not “scandalized” in the sense of seeing something reproachful, but I do do feel like we could safely say we are “scandalized” in the sense of her face presenting us with a stumbling block. We notice it, work through it for a moment, and then continue our work of looking, while continually being pulled back to into the trap of the face.

    So, having worked through that, I think I rather like the use of the word of scandal.

  6. rob says

    A truly striking photograph. And thoughtful comments. I would add a few more. First is the ancient caveat about making graven images. Many cultures fear that icons will lead to idolatry. The icon itself is not holy but it can be used to lead some one toward the holy. The icon can become a window to god. If the icon has value it is as an aid to spiritual development. What this photograph does for me is to remind me of my own humanity, my own frailty, and my own mortality. In this regard the photograph becomes, for me, an icon. Further, as a memento mori, I am a scandal to myself.

  7. Annette Magjuka says

    I think the woman in the photo is beautiful. I remember as a child being drawn to adults with lots of “laugh lines” around their eyes. Somehow I got an idea that someday I could have some too, and as I grew up and came to understand that wrinkles are considered bad, I was surprised and then a little offended. I started working menial jobs in about the 6th grade, washing dishes, cleaning, babysitting, restaurant work, etc., etc. My hands are very wrinkled and have always looked older than my age. Once my daughter, about five at the time, said, “I just love your hands.” She would rub them and hold them. Now my daughter is 18, and she recently she told me the same thing–she loves my hands. I don’t know why I thought of this, but there is something beautiful about the history of your life showing up physically. I was raised as a Catholic, and the icons of religious faith were always around me. When I went to Italy, the art and history was moving in a way that really was transcendent. The icons mean different things at different times in your life. The church is flawed as individuals are flawed. The church is corrupt. Individuals are sometimes overlooked or feel insignificant. The value of a single life can be devalued by cynicism and apathy, materialism, selfishness, etc etc. Aging can be frightening and in America, can be considered ugly. But it is not ugly. This picture is a beautiful depiction of so many things–mortality, the value of living the life as a nun, etc. etc. Yet there is something so beautiful and moving about this woman. I guess I am rambling, but I do love the photo.

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