What does deep religious faith look like in the 21st century? Israeli photographer Dafna Tal begins to broach this seminal question in her series, A Lasting Faith: Orthodoxy in the Holy Land, in which she captures the faith of the Christian Community in Israel. Playing with the contrast of light and dark, Tal shows contemporary priests and monks as they maintain their traditional ways of life and she probes broader questions about the great unknown. We had the opportunity to speak with Tal and hear more about her project and also her experience capturing the reactions of religious people as they listened to the prayers of other faiths.
Tells us about your series A Lasting Faith. How did you get started?
I grew up here in Israel – I was born an hour away from Jerusalem and for the last six years, I’ve been living very close to Jerusalem. I spent a lot of time with different religious and ethnic groups, and I was fascinated by many of them. The focus on this group started because of my really good Christian orthodox friend who spent a lot of time at the church. Several years ago, he encouraged me to try and spend time with his community and so I did.
I was really fascinated by the traditional character of the church; stepping into their ceremonies felt like going back in time. I was also taken by their expressiveness, emotional and devotional nature and was interested to learn what drove these people to choose this specific path of faith. In the beginning, I was really exploring, learning, attending ceremonies and getting to know the people personally. Even though I was not present in these kinds of ceremonies before, they seemed somewhat familiar since they reminded me of classical art paintings.
It took time to form an artistic vision and realize exactly what I wanted to say and focus on, but somewhere along the way, I realized I wanted to look at the more emotional and intimate side of their community. While there are some photographs of ceremonies, it’s more about the intimate moments. Then I really started working on my project and that took several years, including research, getting to know the community, and the actual time of producing photographs in the field.
What exactly did your research entail?
I consulted with a friend of mine throughout the project who is an expert in interreligious relations and in Christianity specifically. I also collected stories from the people about how they became priests and monks.
The photographs inside the church in comparison with the ones in nature evoke very different feelings. What made you decide to photograph them in both of these spaces?
As an artwork, everything is up to the viewers’ interpretation. For me, though, the photographs in nature are a continuation of the same world. Those natural places are holy sites for these people; they are very meaningful for them. I think the landscapes add interesting elements to the project, since according to the Christian faith, these are the actual natural sites where many important religious events have occurred. I took these photographs at night and the light is the moonlight. In this way, my choice is a continuation of trying to explore their inner world and vision.
Where were these images in nature taken?
I photographed the priests at the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee and the Judean desert – places that are and have long been sacred sites, but are now also used for recreational activities.
You play with themes of light and dark, which can of course be connected to ideas of good and evil – a major part of the Christian faith. Was that deliberate?
The light and dark aesthetic is very characteristic of the Orthodox Church, so my focus on this contrast connects to how the Orthodox community really looks. For me personally, it is not about the good and the evil. It was about the night-time, their inner world, and how they see the great unknown. I really tried to capture that human search for answers inside of the darkness in the big unknown world.
Why did you choose to focus solely on night scenes?
The moments captured at night show something significant as they are a reflection of another kind of universal human search: the quest and longing for meaning and spirituality. This is global concept, true not just for the Christian Orthodox community.
Then, I was able to explore other religious encounters in the world in my inter-religious video experiment project, called Reaction, which was inspired by the reactions I received to the project A Lasting Faith. These allowed me to acknowledge more personally the various complex ways in which people react to religious content. It is an experiment testing how Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of mixed faith in Jerusalem react to the sounds of religious prayers, both their own and others’.
Tell us a bit more about Reaction. How did the experience of filming people’s reactions to prayers differ from that of photographing the Christian Orthodox community?
The approach in this project is very different. This time I did not spend a long time with the same people, but rather, I interacted with a lot of people for a shorter time. Rather than being a visitor, I was inviting strangers to my place (the studio), for this experiment, not knowing how they will react to these sounds they did not expect to hear.