Personally I can’t think of one good reason to put photography and God together in the same sentence, and so in the course of this post I’m going to explain why.
There are no doubt, more than a few famous photographers (one in particular comes to mind – the Australian landscape photographer, Ken Duncan) who feel that the two go hand in hand so much that God is almost the reason they are photographers, but for other, more … I’d say rational people, beauty is a much better word to connect to their reason to photograph the world. Why God has to come into it, I have no idea. Ken Duncan has even gone to the length of producing a book devotional images, so we know exactly where he stands, but connecting photography and God is in my view, very problematic.
I suppose I had better explain where I am coming from. I am a staunch atheist, despite growing up in a vaguely religious family and spending more than 10 years in Catholic schools. In fact, I was even an alter boy for a number of years in my early days. But without any particular outside influence, atheism slowly became the best explanation I could find to the question of “life, the universe and everything..” Atheism simply made sense. And as a by-product, it also became my logical response to the hypocrisy of religion I experienced on a daily basis. And so Godless I became.
A central tenet of my atheism is that I repudiate any claim that morality or beauty (or basically anything else useful) belongs exclusively or even primarily to the religious domain. In short, people can of course be idealistic, decent, beauty loving citizens of the world without a trace of anything called faith in their bones. It’s a testament to religion’s awesome power of indoctrination that I even have to make that statement.
In the last few days I have been reading in the Danish media about a few new, very welcome books attacking religion: one by the British journalist Christopher Hitchens, entitled god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and another by the popular scientist Richard Dawkins, called The God Delusion. I have not read either book yet, but I have devoured long excerpts in newspaper articles and on the Internet.
They don’t relate to photography at all directly, but they awoke a memory lingering just in my subconscious (and I’m sure they’d be an interesting read). Just the other day I was looking at a Ken Duncan photographic book on Australia that my wife’s grandparent’s had bought, and despite the photography being of a high standard, Mr Duncan really turned me off with the outspoken God message that seemed to find a home on almost every page.
One of the main reasons I love visual communication is its ambiguity of meaning. By insisting that the beauty portrayed in his photographs was the work of God, Ken Duncan was limiting my experience and interpretation of his art, and this was something I didn’t enjoy. This none so subtle form of proselytism just shows how important religion is to him, but it defies my logic why he couldn’t use universally acceptable language, speaking of “natural beauty” instead of “god’s creation” or whatever.
I suppose I see photography as something mercifully free from the necessarily subjective nature of other forms of communication, like writing for example. Now I don’t have any problem at all with subjectivity (unless it’s a newspaper editor trying to tell me his paper is not full of it) as I really love the nature of free speech and the to and fro of intellectual debate. But something I discovered to be a real joy in photography is the freedom ambiguity gives in visual communication.
“Show, don’t tell” was the advice of my professors at university. They were talking about writing, but I think it equally applies to photography. If we show the beauty of the world (or the weirdness, or the dark side for that matter) in our images, then we should realise it’s a uniqueness of the medium that we can leave the assumptions and interpretations up to the viewer. By sticking God in their face, you are taking away choice, and that’s always a narrowing, limiting experience. It’s a bit like David Lynch’s philosophy of film making, which could be distilled to “let them figure it out”.
In a way it’s not even God I’m rallying against (however I find that so much fun, I don’t need much of an excuse). What I’m talking about is restraint. Having the restraint to present your art without funnelling and otherwise directing people what to think about it. That the world is beautiful and amazing goes without saying. It’s also ugly and hypocritical and everything else under the sun. Choose what you want to photograph of course but for Dog’s sake, let the viewer make their own mind up about what they are seeing.
To this end, I want to show you two of my images that illustrate what I am talking about. There are stories in these photographs, but I won’t tell you what they are. That’s up to you to decide.