Seeking America's Faith

By Conor Risch

© Christopher Churchill
A Hutterite classroom in Guildford, Montana. To see more images from American Faith, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Faith comes in many forms. People believe in deities and religions; in charity work; in their families and their roles within them; in their countries and in military service; in vocations; in science; in extraterrestrial life. Belief in something greater than oneself, and a desire to be a part of whatever that something is, forms the core of many individuals’ faith.

Photographer Christopher Churchill’s new book American Faith, recently published by Nazraeli Press, explores many of the country’s multitudes of beliefs. Combining large-format portraiture, text excerpts of conversations with subjects and photographs of the American landscape, Churchill shares with viewers his search for faith in this country during the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2004, spurred by a feeling of frustration at “how religion was being represented in the media” and by an alarming level of intolerance he perceived in the country, Churchill, who does not participate in any organized religion, set out to travel through all 50 states to “take this capture of religion and find this commonality that exists between [them],” he says. After working on the project for a couple of years, Churchill decided to look beyond organized religions to other manifestations of faith.

Throughout the project he had no agenda except to photograph the people he encountered and felt he should photograph; to knock on doors he felt like he should knock on; to turn down roads he felt he should explore. “I remember thinking at the beginning that the project was this documentary tucked inside a documentary,” Churchill explains. “On the one hand, I am sorting through these individual manifestations of faith, but then on the other hand it can’t help but be autobiographical: If you have this gut response to take a right turn, only you end up in that one place—it’s very individual.”

Despite the loose, exploratory structure, Churchill did know he wanted to turn his project into a book, and he brought a tape recorder along so he could interview his subjects with the intention of using those interviews for the text. Rather than writing about his subjects himself, as he might if this project were an academic study, “Everything needed to come from the people who were being depicted,” he explains.

“The biggest killers are those who claim religion,” reads a text that accompanies a portrait of two members of the Nation of Islam doing outreach work in Dorchester, Massachusetts. “We kill each other over religion and we say we’re doing God a favor. It’s a lie and it’s hypocritical.”

In New Mexico, Churchill photographed an Army private in his fatigues who spoke about disliking the military. He has stayed in the Army, though, because of his young daughter. “I just want to support her and make sure she has a good life,” he says. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”

In New Orleans, Churchill photographed a voodoo priestess; in Roswell, New Mexico, he photographed the proprietor of a UFO museum; in Nevada he photographed a sex worker who is proud to help her clients feel less frustrated when they go back out into the world; and in Madison, Wisconsin, he photographed a young Muslim couple who have dealt with intolerance daily–a reality particularly hard for the woman, who wears her religion in the form of a headscarf.

Churchill’s landscapes reflect what he found beautiful and relevant as he traveled the country. They include churches and religious icons, roadside attractions, national monuments like the Grand Canyon and common street scenes. “Geography is so fundamental in shaping culture, and as a country we have so many different cultural pockets that exist within the country,” Churchill says. “How geography shaped the culture within the United States is completely fascinating and relevant to faith. Those landscapes provide a little bit of introduction to that kind of dialogue.”

In his introduction to the book Churchill writes that, during his trips, he “would begin to fill with self-doubt” and become “suspicious of what I was doing.” He also had to contend with feelings of loneliness, depression and anonymity. Yet the depth of the interactions he had regularly with complete strangers drove him on. “[Those] are some of the most profound exchanges I’ve ever had with human beings in my life,” Churchill says. “The situations that I’d ended up in were so exhilarating and so meaningful that there was no question I would continue.”

“Having self-doubt,” Churchill says, “is part of being human, but I think creatively speaking it ensures a certain amount of stretching and growing.”

At the end of his book, Churchill included a moving text about how the passing of his father in 2008 brought him an understanding of faith he hadn’t before known, one which made him feel connected to all human beings and “part of something larger in the world.”

After working on the project he also understood that belief in the unknown is vitally important to certain photographers. “I remember reading that the really great projects that exist in the world are ones where you, as the viewer, actually experience that person’s growth in working on that project,” Churchill says. “I think that’s really true … As a photographer, to place faith in the fact that you are going to go out and make things, and then those little two-dimensional objects are going to start to communicate with you and enhance your understanding of yourself and the world and the topic at hand, you have to place a lot of faith in that.”

Related Articles:

Photo Gallery: Photos from American Faith
Building a Brand on the Romance of Artisanship
Shelby Lee Adams: An Ode to Appalachia

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