Photographers' Blog

Afghan refugees – Seeking sanctuary

Brussels, Belgium

By Francois Lenoir

It was a cold, wet morning when I passed through the doors of the Church of Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage, a grand 17th century building in the center of Brussels.

Inside, children were playing and shouting in the large, dark hall, which was lined with rows and rows of tents. I had not just entered a church – I was inside people’s homes. The building had become a very private space.

Saint John the Baptist’s is occupied by a group of Afghan migrants, who have been living there for more than three months. Their first asylum request was refused by the authorities and they were told to leave Belgium, but some ended up travelling around the county aimlessly and were left squatting in unoccupied buildings.

That was before Daniel Alliet, the priest at Saint John the Baptist’s, opened its doors to them. When I went to visit the church at the beginning of the year, more than 200 migrants were living there, although that number has since dropped as many have found shelter in asylum centers.

On my first visit, I felt a sense of dismay when I saw the chaotic and unsanitary conditions in which the asylum seekers lived. The church was not built to house this many people, day and night. Water supplies were under strain. There were only two toilets. The priest told me that the condensation from so many bodies had even begun to damage the organ.

Destroying the heart of the village

Geste, France

By Stephane Mahe

The villages of rural France are faced with decreasing numbers of residents. In addition to the closure of bakeries and shops, they are seeing rising costs to maintain the religious and social heart of these communities, the local church. The village of Gesté and its church, Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens, has witnessed this first-hand.

Local media reported the final phase of the “deconstruction” of a neo-Gothic church in the village of Gesté, and its 2,600 residents. The municipal council was unable to allocate the funds, some 3 million euros ($4.05 million) in 2007, needed for repairs and upkeep. With some research I discovered that since 2000, more than twenty village churches had faced the demolition ball. Apparently 250 churches in France are threatened with the same fate as municipalities are faced with extremely high costs to repair and maintain them, costs that are higher than the cost of tearing them down.

I appeared on site to discover the Saint-Pierre-aux-Liens church, built between 1854 and 1864, with workmen and cranes tearing down the walls of the church, leaving the bell tower and the crypt intact. People stopped to gather behind barriers to watch as heavy machines partially brought down the church.

Brazil’s exclusively inclusive church

By Paulo Whitaker

In Brazil we have a saying, “Soccer and religion are sacred.” Here, as with one’s choice of a favorite soccer team, one’s choice of religion is also not up for discussion. When I discovered here in Sao Paulo a church run by a missionary and a pastor who are lesbian partners, I thought it would be an interesting photo story.

In this megalopolis, there already are a few evangelical churches that are inclusive, accepting people regardless of race, color, economic situation and sexual preference, but the Cidade de Refugio (City Refuge) is the first in Brazil to cater almost exclusively to the gay community. This church, part of the network of the evangelical Assemblies of God, is led by Lanna Holder, a lesbian activist who uses the title of Missionary.

This story was particularly difficult because of the number of subjects involved, and the need to get their and the church’s trust. I confess it took me a while to reach a level of confidence with them so that my pictures were natural. There was also a lot of suspicion among the congregation due to recent financial scandals involving different churches.

Detroit’s glimmer of hope

By Mark Blinch

I’ve been to Detroit countless times over the years and though I’ve always known the city to struggle with poverty, I am usually sent to the city to cover another winning Detroit sports franchise, or the glitzy international auto show showcasing the years new cars from all the top auto makers.

As I drove down the highway from my hometown Toronto, I tuned into my favorite Detroit rock radio station 89x as I got close to the border crossing. The radio hosts began to plug an event where people with little means could go and get a free meal. It was just a few days until Christmas, and rockstar Kid Rock, a Detroit native, was putting up the funds to help support his hometown.

I was sent to Detroit to meet with the people who struggle the most during the holidays, to see the places where they seek comfort and to capture the spirit of the locals who reach beyond their own troubles to help out others.

Helping the helpless

More than just a photograph, irrefutable proof.

It was three weeks ago when a woman named Carolina called me to denounce abuses inside the Pequeño Cottolengo shelter in the city of Quintero, near Valparaiso. The shelter is part of a chain of homes for mentally handicapped children and youths run by the Catholic Church. Carolina had been working there only three months.

I met with her and saw photos that she had taken with her cell phone during the different shifts she worked there. One of the images showed very clearly the bruises caused by the beating of a young girl, a girl too handicapped to defend herself. Others showed the obvious effects of malnutrition on one young boy.

I asked her if it was possible to take more images, and she answered that she was willing to face all the consequences, including losing her job, to be able to help the children.

How I became a pilgrim

I grew up in a country with deep Catholic traditions. I was just a year old in 1978 when Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. It was a huge surprise in the then‐communist country, a satellite of the Soviet Union, that a son of Polish soil could become the head of the Catholic Church – which was painfully divided by the Iron Curtain.

Over the years, it became a natural feeling that the pope was Polish. The words ‘pope’ and ‘Pole’ becoming synonyms in my mind. John Paul II visited Poland eight times as the pontiff but I only had one chance to see him live when his papa‐mobile passed my home in 1991. I was 14 years old and took a picture of the event.

Unfortunately, during my professional career I never took a picture of Pope John Paul II. My first such assignment came only after the late pope passed away and I was sent to Rome for his funeral. It was a really hard time with no sleep, no time for eating or bathing. I just wandered about taking pictures of thousands of pilgrims sleeping along the Vatican streets and waiting for several days to attend the funeral ceremony. The air was full of grief. I also queued for hours to get to the St.Peter’s Basilica following an endless stream of people who wanted to honor John Paul II and to take a picture of his body exhibited to the public.

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