FaithWorld

from Photographers' Blog:

An island of religion in a sea of secularism

Warsaw, Poland

By Kacper Pempel

When Pope Benedict XVI announced last week that he was stepping down, the mood in my country, Poland, was overwhelming. This is one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in Europe, which still proudly identifies itself as the birthplace of Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II. On the day of the announcement my colleagues went to the church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. The worshipers coming out of the church were in a state of shock. "It’s so sad. It’s such a shame. But what can we do? I can’t believe it,” said one woman as she left the Holy Cross church in the Polish capital, who gave her name as Maria. “I am very sorry because I really like the Pope. He is continuing the teachings of our Pope (John Paul II).” Janusz, another worshiper, said: “I don’t think it’s true. In my opinion it would not be a good solution. It would definitely be a huge pity for Poles and Catholics.”

I spent the last few months traveling around Poland taking photographs of Polish people demonstrating their Catholic faith: going on pilgrimages, attending mass, children having religious lessons in schools. I photographed the statue of Jesus in Swiebodzin, near the Polish-German border, which stands 33 meters tall. I visited a huge church built since the fall of Communism in farmland in Lichen, in central Poland. As I drove towards the church, its gold-colored dome, 98 meters high, looked incongruous surrounded by cows grazing in a pasture.

The building was so vast that it dwarfed the worshipers and the village around it. I went to another new church in the Warsaw suburb of Wilanow. Filled with young, middle-class families, it stands in stark contrast to the image many people have of Catholicism in Poland, a religion for the old and the poor.

But one incident sticks in my mind from my time trying to capture Catholicism in Poland. It happened while I was at an open-air mass in Jasna Gora, the holiest site in Polish Catholicism, which attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. I was trying to photograph a group of worshippers on the grass. As I always do on occasions like this, I was trying to be discreet. But one man, in his 40s and wearing a leather jacket, asked me to stop taking his picture. "Get out of here," he said. "You're from UB." That was the acronym for the Communist-era secret police, which used to spy on worshipers because they were considered potential subversives. I moved away and started taking pictures of another group nearby.

It is a reaction I often get. There is a divide in Polish society between devout Catholics and the increasingly popular secular movement. Secularism is growing in influence, especially among young Poles. They consider themselves Catholics, but don't go to church every week and do not follow the church's teachings on issues like contraception or in-vitro fertilization. Because of this change, the more devout Poles feel that they are under threat, they feel persecuted. That, I think, is why they are so suspicious of having their picture taken.

from Photographers' Blog:

Exorcism at the ghost fair

Malajapur, India

By Danish Siddiqui

Malajpur is a small but not ordinary village in central India. In fact it is probably the only village in India which has been hosting a ghost fair for the past several years. People from across the country come to this fair to get rid of ‘evil spirits’ that they claim to be possessed by.

As night falls on Paush Purnima (full moon night) the 'possessed' are taken to the local shrine to be exorcised. People who bring their relatives here feel the latter's bodies have been 'taken over by ghosts of the dead' and that exorcism is the only release for them. Interestingly, most of those who come here to be exorcised are women. When I asked the priest the reason he said, “They are emotionally weak and hence easy target for spirits."

On the first day when I went to the temple, it looked to me like any other temple complex. But suddenly from the middle of the crowd I heard a woman scream as she started running around the temple courtyard. According to priests the ghost inside people becomes weak the more they run around the courtyard in an anti-clockwise direction. For those who don't run voluntarily (which is the case often) relatives or priests make them do so by pushing or kicking.

from Photographers' Blog:

The biggest show on Earth

Allahabad, India

By Ahmad Masood

The Maha Kumbh Mela, or the Grand Pitcher Festival, is one of the biggest gatherings of people on earth; it takes place every 12 years and goes on for 55 days, in one of four cities in India : Allahabad, Ujjain, Haridwar and Nashik.

I moved to India from Afghanistan last year and the Mela, as it is called, was one of the assignments I wanted to cover.

My memories of the word “Mela” come from the times when I used to watch lots of Bollywood movies. Some of these movies would show brothers separated during this massive, chaotic gathering at childhood and then re-united decades later as adults.

from Photographers' Blog:

Christmas in Afghanistan

Baghlan, Afghanistan

By Fabrizio Bensch

There are thousands of miles that separate the German soldiers in Afghanistan from home.  For up to one year, they may be stationed in Afghanistan, but for most of them no more than four to five months.

The lead up to Christmas in Germany has a very long tradition and the arriving season is dominated by beautifully decorated shop windows in department stores and the smell of gingerbread and cinnamon. Christmas trees are festively illuminated in the streets with Christmas decoration and Christmas markets and Santa Claus are in every city.

But for the German armed forces Bundeswehr soldiers far away, each of them tries to maintain a little bit of these traditions and so everywhere in the camps are signs of Christmas.

from Photographers' Blog:

A modern witch

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

At first sight, Mayra is a typical Cuban housewife, carrying out her daily chores as so many others. But she has another job apart from those housekeeping tasks, and when she does that she looks like anything but a housewife.

In Cuba, after the last Communist Party Congress, the government published a list of 181 private jobs and commercial activities that Cubans are now able to engage in, and pay taxes on the income generated from them.

Mayra told me, “I went through the list of 181 jobs and I couldn’t find mine. I am a freelance witch, spiritualist and fortune teller, so for the moment I cannot apply for a license to legally do my job.”

from Photographers' Blog:

Coffin therapy

By Sheng Li

After many days trying to set-up an interview at the Ruoshui Mental Health Clinic, which resides within a commercial apartment building in Shenyang, China, I finally received a call from the owner on December 12 who granted me the access and opportunity to photograph one of their “death experience therapy” patients.

An hour later, I found myself in the so-called “death experience room”, a 10-square-metre room with nothing but a coffin on the floor. On the wall there was a poster of Jesus holding a newborn baby illuminated with gloomy blue lights. My first impression? Quite intimidating.

According to 50-year-old therapist Mr. Tang Yulong, the clinic opened in 2009 and since then there have been more than a thousand people who have done the death experience therapy. The therapy costs 2000 yuan ($320) and usually lasts 4 to 5 hours, during the duration of which the patient is required to lie in a coffin while his/her relatives read “epitaphs” or give speeches nearby. The patient also needs to write down his/her feelings and share with therapists and family. Mr. Tang said that many of them burst into tears when they are “resurrected.” He believes it is an extreme but efficient method to make people realize the value of their lives.

from Photographers' Blog:

Any color, as long as it’s blue

Wiesbaden, Germany

By Ralph Orlowski

It was a cold and blustery winter morning when I arrived at the warm and cozy gallery rooms of the Hesse Nassau Art Club in Wiesbaden to take pictures of the exhibition "Bourquoi". This was to be my third attempt to take photographs of viewers at the show. So far I had not been successful at finding any willing visitors. I wondered whether this could be because of the compulsory dress code. The title of the exhibition "Bourquoi" by Turkish-German artist Naneci Yurdaguel is a play on the two words ‘pourqui' -- the French word for 'why' – and “Burka”.

I took off my big awkward padded winter coat only to be handed an equally, if not more, awkward “Burka” by the gallery assistant. I was told the only way to photograph or view the exhibition was while wearing it. No exceptions – not for male visitors or even for journalists.

Finally two visitors arrived – a man and a woman who were also willing to pull over an original Kabul burka. The organizers of the exhibition had flown in about a dozen original blue Burkas from the Afghan capital. I expected the visitors to be giggling and laughing when they changed to fulfill the dress code. But everyone was surprisingly extremely quiet and respectful.

from Photographers' Blog:

Demon face

Heitwerwang, Austria

By Dominic Ebenbichler

Tourists or foreigners have to look twice when attending a Perchten festival in the western Austrian region of Tyrol. Some probably think there is something wrong with the countryfolk - dressing up like demons, wearing head to toe animal skins and wooden masks, behavior that could easily be associated with some kind of a devil's cult. It just doesn't seem to be normal.

The explanation goes back to the years about 500 AD. Back then farmers performed pagan rites to disperse the ghosts of winter to help bring a fruitful harvest. They thought it might work with terrifying masks which should scare even ghosts. And what is more scarier than the devil himself? Right, nothing! Even ghosts have to be scared by the devil.

In 2012 not much has changed. Of course we know that scaring ghosts is not going to work, but traditions are deep-rooted and somehow people still believe in the power of pagan rituals. And in the countryside there is nothing more important than a good harvest, so why not help a good harvest along by getting rid of some winter ghosts one way or another. Old habits die hard I guess.

from India Insight:

Photo gallery: From Haridwar to Rishikesh, why you don’t stick to the itinerary

You may be ready with the camera equipment and travel gear, but what if the first sight of your destination doesn't appeal to you? That happened to me when I reached Haridwar. The dirt and grime appalled me, and I wasn't up for an "exotic India" photo op. Worse, the manager of an ashram refused to provide accommodation because I was a single male. The other lodging house guy I spoke to over the phone was equally reluctant and for the same reason.

Walking past the innumerable beggars and the drying Ganga river, I found a spot where a man was resting under a tree.

 

Disgruntled, I hopped into the next autorickshaw and reached Rishikesh, about 20 kilometres from Haridwar. The view cheered me up.

from Photographers' Blog:

Meeting a modern-day Gandhi

Delhi, India

By Mansi Thapliyal

"I am Gandhi!" he says firmly. "His soul resides inside me," he announces, smiling unwaveringly.

I stare blankly at the man who is wearing a dhoti wrapped around his waist, thick black oval glasses and carrying a cane just like Mahatma Gandhi.

GALLERY: MODERN-DAY GANDHI

Two weeks ago, I called this man asking to meet him and he politely told me not to say "hello."