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Philip Richter, author, Spirituality in Photography

14 July 2017

‘The eye is the best camera you’ve got’

Stuart Bridewell

I started taking photos as a child with a box Brownie camera. I then got into black-and-white photo­graphy, and doing my own develop­ing, fascinated by the images appear­ing in the developing tray.


It was too expensive to do much serious photography as a Methodist minister, until digital photography democratised the medium and re­­awakened my passion. I’ve grad­u­ally built up my skills as an amat­eur photographer through taking courses, belonging to a camera group, and reading, as well as a lot of trial and error.


I’ve been a circuit minister, higher-education chaplain, and Vice-Principal of STETS [Southern Theo­lo­gical Education and Training Scheme], and enjoy working in ecu­men­ical contexts. I’m now part of the central ministry-development team for the Methodist Church, cre­at­ing Worship: Leading and preach­ing, the new local preachers’ and worship-leaders’ training course.


Spirituality in Photography is about my passion for photography, with its capacity to help you deepen your vision and grow spiritually. I’ve tried to write for a general reader­ship and avoid religious jargon. Inter­estingly, people seem to be buying it not just for themselves, but also for young people they know.


I’m encouraging people to slow down, look at their surroundings, and only then take their camera out.


Increasingly, I’m being more care­ful about what I’m taking — thinking before I press the shutter. I take fewer photographs than I used to. Also, one needs the humility to know that even the best photo­grapher in the world can’t always capture what they’ve felt and seen. The eye is the best camera you’ve got, and all is not lost if your photographs go wrong.


Selfies: a sign of the times, perhaps? If you’re at a tourist site, you’re in danger of being hit by people taking selfies. It’s a way for people to express their identity in relation to their friends on social media, to say they’ve been somewhere. If people find that helpful, then I’m not over-concerned. But it’s not serious photography. Maybe people think that if you don’t put up multiple photos of yourself each day, doing interesting things, you might not truly exist.


I’d like to encourage people to put up the important things, the things that really matter. If you just shower people with images, what impact is it having? And I’d like people to ask a passer-by to take their picture. Maybe there’s an issue about the security of your equipment, but I don’t think that’s a real problem.


Absolutely anyone can take good photographs. The old stereotypes of who gets involved in photography are rapidly breaking down, and my own camera group includes men and women of all ages. You can certainly take excellent photos with a smartphone. It’s the person behind the camera that makes the difference: their ability to visualise the photo, and respond to what they see.


Review your photos, and decide which ones you want to share, but don’t jettison the others, because you might come back to them later and see different things in them. Transfer them to a computer to sort them out and classify them, and flag up the ones that are most important to you.


Some pictures may be important and meaningful to you alone, and may help your prayer and contem­plation, but you may want to share some more widely. There are var­i­ous competitions you can enter, to get them into the public domain, even if you’re not interested in winning. Join a camera group or start a group inspired by my book, to share pictures in a church or in the wider community.


It’s important to print some out. You might have a whole load stored in your hard-drive, but sometimes that can be lost, which is devastat­ing, and anyway, it’s valuable to create something tangible that you can see in different lights, copy as a gift, and keep for years to come.


No, I don’t show people how to help their camera to lie. . . In fact, I sug­gest that people should use post-production tools such as Photoshop or Lightroom sparingly. But all cameras have their limitations, and sometimes you need to tweak your images in post-production to con­vey what you saw and felt when taking the photo.


Cultivating the art of really seeing does help spiritual growth. It’s helped me become less absorbed in my own projects, and less blinkered. It’s helped to open my eyes to God’s presence in different places and people. It enables me to look more intently and lovingly at God’s creation — and sometimes the way it’s been abused.


I’ve noticed in my local camera group that even people who may not be churchgoers seem to enjoy spending time under the night sky, taking photos of star trails and the Milky Way. It’s quite difficult not to feel a sense of awe and wonder in that context.


I look for photos that convey a mood or feeling. I want something that grabs my attention: an image that is simple, not simplistic, giving me space to explore and discover meaning.


Two photographers stand out for me: Martin Parr, for his gentle irony, humorous juxtapositions, and saturated colours; and Ansel Adams, with his soaring, awesome, finely detailed landscapes. Interest­ingly, Parr was first introduced to photography by his Methodist local preacher grandfather.


I can’t remember when I was first conscious of God. From childhood, God has always been there.


My sense of God hasn’t just been in religious situations, although, as a Methodist, singing fine hymns has lifted me into God’s presence. I especially enjoy finding God in awesome moments, at the top of a mountain or contemplating the vastness of the night sky in places with little light pollution. I’m in­­creasingly appreciating God in people, friendship, and community.


My favourite sound is of wind rustling the leaves of trees.


Wally, one of my Sunday-school teachers, was a printer and a com­mitted trade-unionist. He was the greatest influence on my life. He showed me that faith could be a world-changer as well as a people-changer, and helped me see the connection between personal faith and social action. He died a long time ago, but he still inspires me.


Photography makes me happy — and being creative; good food and wine; time with the family; projects that successfully chip away at in­­justice and give people dignity and hope.


People who are arrogant and be­­have as if others didn’t matter or even exist make me angry.


I pray most of all that I will be able to see the best and bring out the best in everyone I meet; and to live more thankfully and appreciatively.


The small acts of kindness that people often show to complete strangers give me hope.


I’d choose Thomas Merton as my companion if I found myself locked in a church. He discovered a passion for photography late in his tragically short life, and used his camera as a tool for contemplation. His images reveal an eye for simplicity and wholeness.


Philip Richter was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Spirituality and Photography is pub­lished by DLT, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9). For details of a summer photography competition, visit www.spiritualityinphotography.com/competition.

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