Photography and the Sacred

I’m an amateur when it comes to photography. An interested amateur who occasionally takes some good pictures, but an amateur nonetheless. Digital cameras are the best thing that ever happened to me – I can take 100 pictures and be happy if 10 turn out well, whereas in the days of film every shot had to count. Over the years I’ve learned a little about what works and what doesn’t, but I mainly shoot on the automatic setting and l freely admit I don’t know much about photo composition.

Most of the pictures on this blog are mine (if I’m in them, they’re probably Cathy’s). And that raises the question “what is the proper use of photography when it comes to rituals, worship services, sacred sites and sacred events?” Some Pagans are camera-shy due to fears of religious discrimination. Others try to get into every picture they can. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine taking pictures in church. When we were in England in 2007, Westminster Abbey did not allow photography inside the building, but Salisbury Cathedral did.

Last month I read this essay on the Get Religion blog discussing the complications of iPhones at weddings. Then I came across this article on CNN.com claiming that photography is ruining vacations. I’ve been thinking about this on and off over the past few weeks and I have some thoughts for your consideration.

Probably the most common reason to prohibit photography around sacred events and sites is to avoid distractions. We’ve been told over and over that stage performers are bothered by flashes and camera clicks – priests and priestesses can be too. It’s also a distraction to the other attendees. This is particularly important for rituals that involve a shift in consciousness – nothing will bring you back to the ordinary world faster than intrusive technology. I’ve come to expect to hear cameras clicking at weddings, but I’ve been to some where the photographer was in the aisle as the bride was walking to the altar. That struck me as “not right” and for a while, my attention was diverted away from the ceremony and the couple.

When I was at Acadia, I was so focused on taking pictures of the ocean that I forgot to listen to the ocean. It was only when I turned the camera off that I opened myself to the spirits of that place, and to the God of the Sea. I’m glad I did.

Beyond distraction, there’s the issue of profanation – taking the sacred and making it profane, i.e. – ordinary. I’ve written about mystery on numerous occasions – a mystery is something that can’t be explained but can only be experienced. A picture is an explanation. You can look at a picture of a ritual, you can see how the altar was arranged, who was there and maybe even what they were doing. But you can’t feel the energy of the circle. My pictures of the Temple of Artemis can’t convey its overwhelming presence of Life. You think you know, but you can’t really know until you’ve been there. Photography can make someone think they know more about sacred things than they really do, things they can’t know unless they’ve been there, in the circle, as a fully engaged participant.

Whatever else sacred things may be, they are alive. Despite all the tourist hype, Stonehenge is alive. Mesa Verde is alive. Good rituals are alive. And if these things are alive, then they have the inherent sovereignty that belongs to all living things. If we are not careful, if we are not reverent, photography can shift from a way to remember and honor the Sacred to an attempt to possess the Sacred – to claim a slice of it for ourselves, to own a piece of it. Is it any wonder we speak of “capturing” an image? We can possess the Sacred or we can form a relationship with it, but we cannot do both.

These are good reasons to leave your camera at home. But there are also good reasons to take your camera with you.

Perhaps the most important reason is documentation. What did we do? How did we do it? Where did we go? What was there? The human memory is notoriously fallible, especially when we’re actively engaged. Pictures can help us evaluate our rituals, particularly those that involve dramatic presentations. They help us see what everyone else is seeing, which in turn helps us understand what we did well and what needs to improve next time. It also helps when we decide to recycle a ritual after a few years and can’t remember exactly how we did this or set up that.

If I’m honest, I have to admit the biggest reason I like photography at rituals is the opportunity for publicity. It’s important to show people who are ignorant but curious what Pagan ritual looks like in action. No, they can’t fully understand it until they experience it, but they can get an idea of what goes on – and what doesn’t. Beyond that, I’m proud of what we do. Hey Bay Area! Hey Paganistan! Pagans in Texas do some pretty cool stuff too. Hey Iowa! If we can do it so can you.

Particularly when it comes to sacred sites, photography is invaluable in aiding memories. Here I’m talking about more than documentation that helps you remember what happened. I’m talking about images that help you reconnect to an experience. Idols are not gods, but they help us focus our attention on the gods they represent. Likewise, a picture can focus our attention on a place or an experience and help us relive it.

The picture to the right was taken at Big Bend National Park in 2010. For three years it hung on my office wall just behind and above my computer monitor. If things got stressful (and they did many times in 2010), I could look at the picture, reconnect to the beauty and peace of the Chisos Mountains, contemplate the mysteries in the picture (this picture could be a Tarot card!) and feel my blood pressure begin to drop. It wasn’t the same as being there, but it helped. A lot.

Could I have done that remembering without the picture? Yes, but not as well. More importantly, would I have even though to try without the picture to remind me? Out of sight, out of mind…

So, with all these pros and cons, where does this leave the question of cameras at sacred events and sacred sites? As with so many things in life, there are no easy black-or-white answers.

Avoiding distractions – for everyone involved – is paramount. Photographers need to be discreet. Respect those who don’t want to be photographed.

Unless photography is your job, documenting an event or a place is never more important than experiencing it. Take your pictures, but then put the camera down and be fully present. Or experience a place, then photograph it. You can’t do both at once – don’t try.

Why are you taking pictures? To record what you did and to share it with those who couldn’t be there? Or are you trying to capture something that is free, to possess something that is not yours to take?

Some things really are too sacred – too special, too personal, too intimate – to be photographed. When we performed Erin’s initiation last year, we took a few pictures during setup and a few more during the celebration afterwards, but we didn’t even consider taking pictures during the ritual. Is your Full Moon circle too sacred for photographs? Your Samhain ritual? Your coming of age ceremony? The more vulnerable the participants, the more inhibiting a camera can be.

If you have satisfactory answers to these questions and concerns, then shoot and shoot well. Photographs of sacred sites and sacred events can be a treasure for the future. If not, leave the cameras off.

As with all technology, photography is neither good or evil – it all depends on how you use it. Photograph mindfully.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Aine

    Gosh, this has great timing! I just bought a digital camera, partially so I can take photos for my virtual shrine space and also because I want to take pictures when I go on vacation, and this brought up some great points about photography and sacredness and awareness.

    Right now having the camera in my hands makes me more grounded and aware, and I found myself often wishing I could convey to people the sounds and smells of the space I photographed. But keeping in mind if we’re being distracted or assisted by our technology is a huge part of how we need to relate to technology, imo, and…anyway, thank you. Another great post.

  • http://about.me/mitchlabuda Mitch Labuda

    Documenting nature, helps others to see the beauty and need to preserve and conserve, which is I, when asked to be a volunteer for the State of Ohio DNR, I couldn’t say, yes, fast enough. The lands and gifts on the land are sacred and need more protection.


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