If God had a face what would it look like? / And would you want to see if seeing meant that / you would have to believe in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints / and all the prophets?— Joan Osborne, ‟One of Us ˮ
Photographers have photographed believers in all the world’s major religions and many of its minor ones while engaged in the act of worship. Often they have done so as outsiders to those creeds, with attitudes ranging from the respectful and curious to the skeptical or even critical. But more than a few of those photographers grew up within a particular faith whose practice and practitioners they subsequently described in images. No doubt some of them remained followers of those belief systems, so it seems safe to assume that while a number of them may have lapsed in their faith, or paid only lip service to it thereafter, others surely sustained their convictions to the point where we would consider them devout.
Therefore we can say that religions have been photographed, as it were, from the inside. However, I can think of no photographer who has given us a firsthand account in words and images of his own spiritual crisis and conversion — especially to a religion with which he had no previous connection, and against which he had decided prejudices. No photographer, that is, until Steven Katzman.
Writing about The Face of Forgiveness, Steven Katzman’s act of bearing witness, necessarily involves addressing not just the human spirit but acts of faith, the evidence of things not seen, even the possibility that God might exist — whether as the all- powerful, omniscient Being that the conventional wisdom assumes or else, in Joan Osborne’s words, as“one of us…Just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.” This project tells us what Katzman believes, while implicitly asking us what we believe, proposing that we put those cards on the table.
In the accompanying text to his 2005 book Katzman describes how he came to make these images and what happened to him in the process. It’s a long story, and I commend it to you in its moving, coherent entirety. I don’t share Katzman’s particular convictions, but I don’t disbelieve a word of what he has to say. And, as a writer, I know an authentic voice when I hear one.
Recently, I asked him to reflect back on that period of his life and the experience of religious conversion. He replied, in part, as follows:
People have always asked, “What got you interested in revival?” I would always reply, “I saw an ad in the Sarasota Herald Tribune: “Come to the miracle tent, come to the miracle tent. Witness the blind see, the cripple walk, the deaf hear . . .“That’s a pretty hard act to ignore, with all of that Southern polyester singing praises to the Lord under a party tent. As I found myself studying my subjects through my rangefinder, I became fascinated with the worshippers’ devotion towards their belief system, regardless of whether it was in conflict with mine.
During the first service that I documented, the preacher saw me kneeling down, twenty pounds of equipment around my neck, perhaps my own personal albatross, and pointing his finger directly at me he said, “Faith has no religion.” Those words somehow freed me from religion’ s dogma.
It wasn’t until I was speaking [about the work] at a gallery opening that the question arose again, “What led you to revival?” I repeated the story, but this time it was different. For the very first time I realized it was “I who was blind, it was I who was deaf, and it was I who was crippled. But now I am able to see, walk and hear.” Holding back my tears, steadied by the supporting wall, I casually told the audience what had just happened.
Perhaps not coincidentally, that controversial 1995 lyric of Joan Osborne’s served as the theme song for the regrettably short-lived TV series Joan of Arcadia, which astonished me not only because it made it onto network TV but also because I found myself drawn to watch it regularly. Its premise— that confused teenagers (or at least Joan Girardi, its eponymous heroine) may be on a mission from God — bemused me. But I found the show’s great- est value in its portrayal of blundering, flawed, vulnerable, wounded, everyday people engaged in a search for meaning, attempting to figure out the right thing to do in mostly ordinary if not always easy situations, and striving to treat each other decently and lovingly.
In short, it concerned the way that those I think of as fundamentally good people, whether known to me or not, try to live their lives everywhere on this planet, regardless of their religious persuasion. By that I don’t suggest that I consider their faith, or conscious acts of agnosticism or atheism, irrelevant. You can use almost any belief system as a weapon with which to injure yourself or as an excuse to harm others. Or you can use it as a reflecting pool to show you the trace of the sacred in your own poor slob’s face. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist — anyone can do either, which is all I mean by “regardless.” In my experience, what you choose to believe matters less than how you apply it to your existence on earth.
The people Katzman shows us surely qualify as pilgrims, seekers of enlightenment, and he renders them with all his considerable skill as a photographer at moments in which they have surrendered themselves to a possibility, the instant of each one’s act of faith. You can’t photograph faith itself, of course. Photographs describe the light that bounces off the surfaces of objects, nothing more, and both faith and revelation remain private, invisible inner experiences.
You can photograph people testifying, feeling the spirit — but that’s not the same thing. The outward appearance of a spiritual experience inevitably becomes more open to interpretation. If we decontextualized Katzman’s electrifying images and recaptioned them, presenting his subjects variously as attendees at a James Brown or Tom Jones or Britney Spears concert, customers at a comedy club, victims of a tragedy, or subjects of a hallucinogenic drug experiment, they’d lose none of their visual power. But their meaning, and our understanding of them, would shift dramatically.
So our reading of what these pictures signify depends to a great extent on what Katzman tells us he underwent at the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, Florida in 1999, and thereafter through 2004. His riveting account of entering this environment as a documentary photographer pursuing a sociological project and exiting it transformed, perhaps permanently, by his encounter with an energy both terrifying and rapturous turns his photographs into what detectives call “trace evidence”— insufficient in itself to fully prove the case, but corroborative of other evidence, supportive of a specific interpretation of the events.
Typically, in a documentary project such as Katzman initially intended to create, the photographer interviews selected subjects of his or her images, transcribing and editing their statements to allow those represented to speak for themselves. This empowers them, by giving them voice, while at the same time distancing the photographer from the situation, casting him or her in the relatively detached role of translator, facilitator, or intermediary.
Katzman, clearly, will have none of this. Or perhaps I should say that whatever has possessed him won’t allow it, won’t permit him to stand aside, pretending to impartiality and noninvolvement. In a superficial reading, this results in a seeming disconnect between the pictures — which employ conventional tropes of ostensibly and even clinically objective modernist documentary photography — and Katzman’s intensely subjective, highly emotional, first-person confessional narrative, entirely uncharacteristic of the “artist’s statement” that normally accompanies such a suite of photographs.
In that testimony Katzman makes a point of mentioning several times the importance to him of using strobe flash for his images. I’m inclined to take that strobe — and, by extension, the pictures he made with it — metaphorically rather than lit- erally. Like Diogenes with his lantern, searching for an honest man, Katzman behaved with his camera and strobe as if he could discover and expose (first for himself, then for us) the essence of revelation merely by putting a bigger bulb in the socket. Unlike Diogenes, he wasn’t making a philosophical point, but behaving in a way we might call presumptuous. Katzman aspired to produce in his photographs a visual analogue of what he calls “the throng of lost souls being blinded by His light.” Powerful images result from this, pictures that suggest how we might appear as motes in an omniscient God’s eye, but they don’t take you inside the individual’s encounter with the divine — because they can’t. How could a mere photograph convey the actual presence, the immanence, of the Holy Spirit?
Yet if one approaches these pictures not as factual, scientific proof but as a form of this photographer’s testament to his own ambition, epiphany and conversion, they take on different, deeper, auto-biographical resonances. When Katzman states, “I am the lost soul in my photographs. . . . I realized that I was no longer a stranger shooting from the outside, but I was now . . . on the inside looking out,” his images and text recombine in a much different and more potent configuration, as manifestations of his own personal search for salvation. Think of them as self-portraits, each one an aspect of Katzman’s own yearning for the state of grace, and they fit exactly with his words, merge with them perfectly.
Here’s what I take away from this: Katzman can show you his intense, charged photographs of religious ecstasy manifest in the faces and bodies of human beings, with whom he so closely identifies. As one who now has undergone it himself, he can tell you in his own eloquent, convincing words how that actually feels — especially what it means to a nonbeliever (perhaps like yourself) who, to his utter astonishment, totally without warning, found himself swept away. But, no matter how finely wrought and persuasive, Katzman’s representations constitute mere reports, not the event itself as it registers in a receptive heart, mind, soul. Someone or something taught Steven Katzman a lesson, and he’s passing it along. His true message (or the message of whatever force speaks through him here):
You cannot have this experience at some remove; it happens firsthand, hands-on, or not at all. But it does happen. It happens to others. It happened to him. It could happen to you.
The issues that Katzman confronted in this project seem to run through his subsequent explorations. There’s a long, ongoing series about derelict life on Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. in Sarasota, Florida, where he and his wife Sharon reside for part of the year; it’s a meditation on the legacy of the slain civil- rights leader and his example of worldly service to a higher cause. “Cowboy Convict,” addressing guilt and redemption, consists of studies of the inmates of two maximum security prisons: “Oklahoma State Penitentiary, McAlester, OK, predominantly white, and Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, LA, predominantly black, where eighty percent of the inmates are serving life for murder,” says Katzman.
And the bluntly titled “Death” series includes images of cadavers undergoing cremation and unnerving still lifes involving several species of dead creatures. It seems that Katzman remains a spiritual searcher at heart, “just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.”
Author’s note: Steven Katzman’s book, The Face of Forgiveness, was published in 2005 by powerHouse Books. It received sup- portive response from the New York Times Book Review, Psychology Today, and numerous other publications in the U.S. and Europe. The above essay is a considerably revised version of the introduction I wrote for that book. You can learn more about this photographer, and see samples from all his projects, at stevenkatzmanphotography.com.