Facing up to religion

It must be increasingly difficult these days for professional photographers to catch people unawares.

A photo from the he “Faces in Prayer” exhibition (photo credit: KATHARINA HEIGL)
A photo from the he “Faces in Prayer” exhibition
(photo credit: KATHARINA HEIGL)
It must be increasingly difficult these days for professional photographers to catch people unawares.
With all of us snap happy, taking pictures of each other and of ourselves with our cellphones with gay abandon, we all seem to be capable of striking up a “complimentary” pose in a microsecond. There are, of course, exceptions. Members of the public engaged, for example, in vociferously making their point at a political demonstration or a soccer match are probably less conscious of the fact that they may be photographed while not quite at their presentable best.
The same can be said for people absorbed in some all-consuming devotional activity who are not going to be on the lookout for someone pointing a cellphone or zoom lens in their direction while they go about their worshiping business.
The proof of that hypothesis is currently on show at the Austrian Hospice in the Old City, where the “Faces in Prayer” exhibition is ensconced until the end of the month. The show, curated by Andrea Krogmann, takes in 30 black-and-white shots of men and women of various faiths and ethnic backgrounds deeply immersed in some moment of religious fervor. The works were created by Austrian photographer and documentary filmmaker Katharina Heigl – not be confused with fashion model-turned-Hollywood star Katharine Heigl – and were taken in Austria and at various locations around Israel.
The idea for the Old City display had something of an oxymoronic beginning.
“I am an atheist myself, but I am very interested in religion because I think it is horrible that religion is used as a scapegoat for many bad things that are happening in the world – an excuse for the misuse of power and money,” Heigl says.
Rather than depressing her, that realization spurred Heigl on to look for the healthier aspects of faith.
“I started researching the beautiful, peaceful side of religion, the reason why human beings seem to feel the need for a form of religion.”
As the Austrian mostly earns her crust from moving images, her natural professional instinct led her to the documentary format. However, the real-life logistics of getting that project off the ground proved to be insurmountable, and “Faces in Prayer” segued into a still visual venture, the impressive results of which can be viewed near the interface between the Muslim and Armenian Quarters.
Heigl may be beyond the religious pale in the formal sense, but at the very least, you sense the empathy she has for her subjects and their beliefs, regardless of their religious stripe.
“I wanted to do a film comparing rituals of different religions and religious people of different faiths, showing the similarity between them, and the beauty in their reasoning no matter which religion they adhere to,” she says.
With that in mind, the prints in the hospice do not specify the subjects’ denomination. It clearly does not matter, either to Heigl or to the observer. We are left, if we so desire, to hazard a guess at whether the person in the photograph in front of us is Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or Hindu, and whether the location was a synagogue, church, mosque or monastery.
The documentary did not get off the ground, as the relevant Austrian state authority to whom Heigl applied for the necessary wherewithal considered religion to be devoid of interest to the man- and woman-on-the-street. Undeterred, she plowed on with what eventually became a fascinating and alluring photographic exhibition.
Heigl has an excellent grasp of visual composition, as one would expect from someone in her line of work.
But there is that X-factor element to her creations that draws you in and imbues the shots with a palpable sense of the emotions felt by the supplicating individual in question.
There is, for example, a shot of a luxuriously bearded man, probably a monk, which is likely to grab the attention of any viewer. His eyes are shut and he appears to be floating away in some state of reverie.
The picture’s claim for our attention is helped by the fact that is also deftly fashioned. The monk’s face accounts for less than half of the print, on the right of the frame, leaving an ostensibly empty void to the left.
But you don’t get the impression that the artist simply ran out of ideas. It is a sensorial balancing act, in which less is plainly more. That equilibrium ploy is employed to good effect in a number of the pictures.
HEIGL’S POST-ABORTIVE documentary project exploratory work led her to this part of the world.
“I went to Israel to do further research in Jerusalem. I also went to the Golan Heights. I met [director of the Austrian Cultural Forum Tel Aviv] Johannes Strasser from the [Austrian] embassy, and it developed from there,” Heigl explains. “I showed him some pictures I took during the research and he said they are wonderful and we should do something about this, and he would talk to the director of the Austrian Hospice.That’s how the idea developed. The hospice is the best place for my photographs that I could wish for.”
The first-floor layout is well presented and the hallway, with its 19th-century imperial-looking decor, provides an apt backdrop for the more elemental hues of the prints. The great advantage of monochromic offerings is, of course, that you tend to notice the finer textural details and the gradated interplay between light and shade and all betwixt. You cannot miss the translucent sheen of the beseeching eyes of some of the characters, or the folds, wrinkles and odd pockmark in the facial skin. The expressions are inescapable, too.
One picture shows a dark-skinned woman with what can only be described as a beatific smile developing across her face. In another, we see a bespectacled young man with a closely cropped beard, his fair eyebrows, eyelids and nose illuminated by some seemingly celestial source of light. A sense of his innermost serenity bubbles through to the surface as he offers his prayer.
This was no snap-’em-and-run venture.
“I took a lot of time with the people I photographed,” Heigl notes. ”I wanted them to feel at peace. I didn’t want them to tell me anything with their faces consciously. I wanted to catch the beauty in their faces while they were alone in prayer.”
That explains the blank bits.
“I don’t think there needs to be anything else in the photographs but the beautiful face of someone talking to God.”
As Heigl says she doesn’t believe in a divine being, presumably that gives her an objective launching pad for her work on believers.
Not so.
“I don’t think I can look at prayer from an objective point of view,” she states. “I believe the reason for prayer, no matter what religion the person is, is the same. I think the reason why religions exist, no matter what religion the person is, is the same.
People want to have guidance in their life, they want to experience the beauty of transcendence to something beyond their area of understanding. I don’t think anyone can ever be completely objective.”
Certainly, it seems, not when it comes to religion and the portrayal thereof.