Photograph by Christopher Churchill
For his book, American Faith, photographer Chris Churchill and his 8 x 10-inch view camera traveled around the United States searching for faith. Chris gave himself a few rules: One, no plans. Secondly, make audio recordings along the way and transcribe the stories as told. “Thirdly, I would travel with faith – not the religious kind of faith, but a belief that this random sampling would somehow make sense in the end,” he writes in the preface.
When I read that, it occurred to me that this project is a wise one, embodying through its very scaffolding a metaphor for how to maneuver through life. I have learned probably not enough in my days, but the few things I know are: If you plan out your life, every one of those plans will change on you; if you ask people to tell about their lives, if you look them in the eye and sincerely ask, what you hear is truth. Every time. And mostly I’ve learned that most things don’t make sense to me, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make sense somewhere.
“I set some very loose parameters for sanity’s sake and then explored the possibilities of what photographs can be made within that structure. In this instance it was to travel through every state and stop random people along the way and make audio recordings for the text. The evolution of what I was seeing and responding to while working on this was constantly changing. I lived with a 30 x 14-foot wall covered in 8 x 10-inch contact sheets for years and I think that wall looked different every day,” he tells me.
Philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The worth of a great day is not measured by the space it occupies in the calendar.” Well, by what then? Perhaps by how it’s remembered. And documented. For the book, quotes from the people photographed are presented alongside the images, acting as signatures, allowing the subjects to share the responsibility of relaying the story. In a podcast or exhibition setting, music and cadence of voices from people telling their own stories in their own way interact, share, and inform Churchill’s own experience as mapped in the images, their composition and suspension of moment authentic to his own eyes and history.
The dedication to his book reads: For my daughter Isabelle, whose birth gave this project purpose, and to my father Eton, whose death gave it meaning.
“Photography and I have a little pact that as long as I work hard and am humble to those gifts then my life as a photographer might just be okay. To that end I'm still learning what all photographs can do. What they can't do. It will never be a objective medium. Every photograph you see no matter how it was made is a manifestation of a relationship between author and medium. It’s spawned from that relationship and therefore is never really honest to the moment it’s recording,” Chris says to me. Perhaps not. But if we’re lucky, everything we make hovers somewhere in between the actual truth of a moment and what we remember it, need it, want it, to be. And harbors every birth and death we live through, as well.
“Photography can so accurately represent the world to its viewer yet, only be representational in its accuracy of what's being displayed. This ambiguity and the fact that it can play with the continuum of time in a way that is just ever so slightly different than how we see, enables it to be amazingly effective in visually affecting our subconscious. I think it is in the back of the brain that you can present the topic you can't see and photography is really a perfect medium for that because of its skewed accuracy,” Chris says.
There’s a snowball named Harold in my freezer. He’s in a ziploc baggie with the date marked in Sharpie in my children’s dad’s handwriting. Harold’s been in our freezer for now eight years, more than half the life of both my kids. I’d forgotten about Harold until seeing him wedged in the back of the freezer the other day, prompting an instantaneous recall of the distant January night out in the backyard, snow falling like everything was ours, and always would be. Like a photo, it symbolizes something, too many things, maybe. Innocent in its origins, it’s now a round planet from some distant galaxy of my past, reminding me on a dark early morning in August that the past will continually thread together with now, that it’s all jumbled together and it all matters, even if we don’t know in what ways or why, that the stories of our lives as told to each other on street corners or remembered by ourselves in the quiet of our homes is something, all there is perhaps, to believe in.
To listen to and view the podcast on this project go to: http://www.daylightmagazine.org/podcast/december2009
For additional information on the book visit: http://www.nazraeli.com/bookdetail.php?book_id=100406
Chris Churchill’s site is: http://www.christopherchurchill.com/