Hold on, wait a minute - a photo assignment called "religion?" Have I not stirred up enough controversy lately?
Cinch your saddles; we're going for a spine-jarring ride to the high country today. We won't end up anywhere near where you expect. Might want to bring a couple canteens, some fresh jerky, and a snakebite kit. And a bedroll. And matches. We might be out overnight.
Here's how I define religion:
Religion is the shipping label on a box containing a birthday gift mailed to an intended recipient. The shipping label instructs the reader regarding point of origin and destination, but reveals no information about what's inside the box. The label might be no frills, handwritten and barely legible; or handsomely laser printed, inscribed with rich textures and tones - but it's still slapped on the outside of the box with no visibility to its contents.
Religion requires a sender (the label writer), as well as interpreters of the label along the way (various brokers and delivery personnel), and of course, a recipient - in all, a rather large and varied congregation of people, each with a role to play. The sender may or may not know anyone along the shipping line, recipient included. The sender's job is to box the gift in newsprint or other filler, write on the label "Ship to Robin Starfish," and drop it off at the PO. The sender's job is done. If everyone else in the chain does their job - scanning, decoding, sorting, trucking, and dropping off at the doorstep - Robin Starfish receives the box, reads the label, and chooses to open it or not.
Faith is a different matter. Here's how I define faith:
Faith is the assumption that there is something in the box to which the label is affixed. Faith does not reveal what that something is any more than the label does, but faith assures everyone in the system that it must be valuable enough for someone to go through the effort of putting the gift in a box, and adhering the appropriate label and postage. Faith assumes that no one in their right mind would send someone an empty box, or a box containing a dead fish. It wouldn't be worth the time, effort, or expense. For the system to work, faith must permeate the whole system; it's the fuel that moves the mountains of mail. This kind of faith is not belief - believing one has no gift does not make it magically disappear from the box.
Enlightenment is the box cutter, the piercing of the container holding the gift. Here's how I define enlightenment:
Enlightenment begins with the acceptance of and signing for the box from the shipper - slicing the tape from the box, digging through the layers of newsprint and bubble wrap, locating the gift, teasing it out, working the strings loose, and finally, lifting the lid. Enlightenment is Aha!, Direct Knowledge!, the Wow Moment!, the revelation of "____" that could not be imparted by even the most ardent label-maker. Enlightenment is "What a gift!" Reaction may range from what! to wonder, from exhilaration to shock, joy to tears - and is always gut-level real and immediate.
Religion - faith - enlightenment. An upwardly rising spiral to be rinsed and repeated.
Is this not precisely how a photographer is made?
Much of what passes for photography education (on the interwebs, at least) is shipping label stuff, how to get from one place to another. It's important and necessary information. You're not going to "get it" without the critical to-from instructions. But it's not "it," so don't get stuck there.
Ya gotta have faith, and know that it will support you, even when you, in isolation, believe it can't (belief has no power against faith). LOVE what you are trying to learn, relax into it, trust that you'll get there, wherever there is. Don't confuse faith with the goal; faith is the high octane that infuses the network and keeps your gift moving closer to your door (even if you don't know what it is yet).
When the aha light goes on, it may blaze into being suddenly, supernova style, or dawn may creep up over the horizon slowly, with cat paw stealth, while you're earnestly studying starfields in the other direction. When your own enlightenment arrives, you'll know it's the real thing because it will resonate like a bell and can never be unheard. You may even be on your knees in awe, wondering how you got there, with this precious gift in your hands.
Do the work - trust - see.
This is the religion of becoming a photographer.
SAMPLE PROJECTS for RELIGION/FAITH/ENLIGHTENMENT:
- Do a thought experiment: Identify a "shipping label" that affects your life for better or worse. Who wrote the label? Are the instructions clear? Are they meant for you or someone else?
- Do you have a mislabeled box that should be marked Return to Sender? Do it and photograph the result.
- Stop naming or labeling the things you photograph. Instead, follow a feeling, mood, shape, color, sound, etc. to its destination and photograph that instead.
- Open the door and accept your gift. Visualize it. Photograph the "aha" moment.
- Shut off your internal chatter. Don't make your photograph until you "hear" silence.
- When you experience a "Message Received" moment, stop and absorb it. Give it all your attention. Don't photograph it (you'll use it later).
- Recognize the small "gifts" with equal gratitude - sometimes they matter more than the big ones.
RELIGION will run for two weeks, from October 5 through October 18.