Photographers' Blog

Keeping the faith

Manila, Philippines

By Bobby Ranoco

Covering the grand procession of the Jesus of the Black Nazarene is not easy, even though I do it annually. Every year on January 9, millions of devotees crowd the streets as a life-sized, dark, wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ carrying the cross is brought through Manila’s old city.

I began to prepare days before the procession and sought permission to get a vantage point on the rooftop of the Quirino Grandstand at Luneta Park, where the procession begins, and on top of other buildings surrounding the route, to produce photographs from a bird’s eye view. It was my first time photographing from the rooftop of the Quirino Grandstand. I had to do my research on how my photographs would turn out at such an angle.

As I did all this, I was praying hard for guidance from the Jesus of the Black Nazarene that all my requests would be approved. He heeded my prayers: everything was approved and ran smoothly with time to spare.

January 9 arrived and while everyone else was sleeping, I woke up at 3 a.m. because we had to be at the grandstand by 5 a.m. to give us an hour to prepare before the mass. At last, the organizer asked me and the other local photographers to position ourselves on the rooftop.

As I stood on the grandstand, about as high as a five-storey building, I was amazed by what I saw: a sea of devotees attending the early morning mass before the procession. Millions of people come to the event every year to ask for their individual miracles. During the mass, which was officiated by Archbishop Cardinal Luis Tagle, I could feel the solemnity and the serenity of the devotees who were praying fervently to the Black Nazarene.

The search for a mosque in Athens

Athens, Greece

By Yorgos Karahalis

Some say that to come in contact with “God” is a spiritual matter that has nothing to do with the particular spot or place where such contact takes place. Well, if it were that simple then there would be no need to build churches or mosques.

In the Greek capital Athens, where almost half the country’s 11 million people live, there is a 500,000-strong Muslim community, mostly immigrants from Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. Many of those are faithful and want to express their faith by praying in an appropriate place. Well, there is no such place – there isn’t a single “official” mosque in the wider area of the Greek capital.

Instead, they have to rent flats, basements, old garages and all kinds of warehouses and transform them into makeshift mosques to cover their need for a place to hold religious ceremonies. There are lots of these types of “mosques” around town but they’re not easy to spot and whenever I arrived at one of those addresses I had to double-check it was correct as there was no way to identify these flats or warehouses from the outside. I could not say that they’re miserable places but I could better describe them as hidden places, places that do not want to get noticed. During most of my visits people have been very welcoming and very keen to express their concerns about the lack of a recognizable place of worship as well as their fears about the threats they get from some locals.

The man with the coconut and the GoPro

Lalitpur, Nepal

By Navesh Chitrakar

Rato Machhindranath is the god of rain, so huge crowds gather in Lalitpur around a 32-meter (104 foot) high tower mounted on a chariot during the chariot festival in an effort to ensure good rains and prevent drought.

The highlight of the day is when someone climbs to the top of the chariot and throws a coconut to devotees below. This is an ancient ritual thought to guarantee the catcher of the coconut the birth of a son. Few people believe this nowadays and I think participation is more about enjoying and preserving the tradition.

Every year I saw the same man climb atop the chariot. Every year he threw the coconut down towards the devotees. I really wanted to show in pictures what the perspective of this man looked like.

Reality of a grand Hasidic wedding

Jerusalem

By Ronen Zvulun

Coming back home at 5am sunrise, I was just beginning to digest the grand event I was lucky to witness and cover: the wedding of the grandson of one of the most influential spiritual leaders in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

GALLERY: ULTRA-ORTHODOX WEDDING EXTRAVAGANZA

The wedding, attended by some 25,000 people, was a massive event that was conducted like a military operation.

How do you take care of thousands of people, feed them, accommodate them, seat them and provide safety for the huge crowd? There was a 20-story stand that needed to hold thousands of dancing Hasidic men.

Voodoo alive and well

Souvenance, Haiti

By Marie Arago

There is much beauty in Haiti. There are mountains, the countryside, the sea and beaches, but what I find most beautiful is the culture of this country. There are many elements that contribute to Haiti’s rich culture and Voodoo (also spelled Vodou and Voudou) is definitely one of them.

This past week I spent three days documenting the annual Voodoo festival at Souvenance, a small village outside of Gonaives. Souvenance was formed by escaped and freed slaves from Dahomey (present day Benin) about two hundred years ago. During this week at Souvenance all of the Rada Iwa, or Voodoo spirits of Dahomey origin, are honored through different ceremonies, song and dance.

The first day begins with a ceremony that leads into a dance for the lwa, or spirit, named Legba. The dancing is led by three drums and the song lyrics are a mix of the Kreyol and Dahomey languages. These songs and dances have been passed on for generations and, judging by all of the children who were singing along, the traditions are not in danger of being lost.

New Mexico’s Holy Week

New Mexico

By Brian Snyder

The high desert of northern New Mexico, with Taos as its unofficial capital, is a confluence of cultures and eras.  Native American, Spanish, Mexican and American cultures co-exist and show themselves in both modern and old ways. Holy Week in this area is celebrated in a very public manner within the safety of the region, beyond the notice of much of the rest of the United States. The rites and customs are very much of the place and cultures found there.

On Holy Thursday a youth group re-enacted the Stations of the Cross at the Sanctuario de Chimayo. The Sanctuary is a church built over a source of sacred dirt that is believed to have healing powers. It is also the destination for thousands of pilgrims from all over during Holy Week. The youth group from Our Lady of Sorrows church in nearby Bernalillo has been doing the performance for years, with new teenagers replacing the previous year’s every year or two. The whips hitting the man playing the role of Jesus are real (though the blood is make-up) and the teens are convincing in their roles as Mary, the women of Jerusalem, Veronica and Roman soldiers.

If the pilgrimage at Chimayo is well-known and better publicized, the pilgrimage in Ranchos de Taos and Talpa on Good Friday is a very local, traditional and communal activity. The several mile walk begins at the famous San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos and from there the Stations of the Cross are marked in various fields, front yards, moradas, and capillas along the route. Four men carry a large cross and lead the procession, with several hundred believers following behind. In many ways Good Friday is the apex of Holy Week. Worshipers, including many young people, pray out loud, sing, and even chat and laugh with one another as they make their way through the countryside.

Church, faith and rock’n'roll

Saltillo, Mexico

By Daniel Becerril

When I first heard of Adolfo Huerta, or Father Gofo as everybody calls him, I thought it was a joke. I thought he just liked to drive a motorcycle and to wear his hear long and that he wasn’t even a priest, just a guy who liked to pretend to be one.

He was packing his things the day I met him as he was moving to another parish. They were sending him off to a neighborhood with social problems, or a “hot” area as it’s generally called. I looked around Adolfo’s room while chatting with him – it looked more like the room of a teenager. I saw heavy metal and alternative rock CDs, books piled high on different topics, all had his nickname “Gofo” written on them. A poster of Che Guevara adorned the wall, another of the latest Batman movie and a double-spread picture of a lovely young lady showing her assets “au naturel”.

FULL FOCUS GALLERY: ROCK’N'ROLL PRIEST

Adolfo discovered God and the priesthood while studying philosophy at the Pontifical University of Mexico City, and working with HIV-positive patients and sex workers as an activist for social causes. But he seems to break the mold of a Catholic priest, he likes rock music, dyes the ends of his hair red, dresses in black, and likes to ride his motorcycle. He is a member of a motorcycle club called the “Black Wings”, he goes to bars, drinks beer, smokes, swears and tells jokes while officiating mass. He likes pictures of naked women. Although his female friends complain about the posters, he says he is an admirer of the female body, its beauty and its ability to give birth. No filthy or profane thoughts behind it, he said, in order to live a chaste life.

“I will show you the Pope”

Rome, Italy

By Alessandro Bianchi

After what seemed like a lifetime of standing in the rain, “Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope!).

I woke up after basically not sleeping at all. Another day and now what? We had no idea what Pope Francis would do. Nobody knew. Only that he was due to attend a small prayer at the Santa Maria Maggiore – a basilica in central Rome. So, fellow photographer Stefano Rellandini and I got on our scooters and went to take a look. When we got there, there was a lot of people – media, tourists (the basilica is right next to the main train station), curious bystanders, and a big wall which surrounds the basilica. Stefano stayed with the pack outside the main entrance and I went for a little wander. How could I see above this wall? The only way was to go into a local school. I walked in, looked for the principle and said “Come with me I have something to show you. I will show you the Pope.” He smiled and said “Okay let’s see.” I said, “I have to have this picture, or my boss will be very unhappy…”

We entered into a class of school kids, around 15 years old (to tell the truth I wasn’t really paying attention to them). Then came one of the longest moments of my life as I walked through the class and saw that from their window I could see into the courtyard of the basilica. I saw cars, police and a couple of priests. This was it. Seconds later he appeared at the doorway and I started taking pictures. I said to the kids “It’s the Pope, it’s the pope. He’s here, say something,” but they were a little star-struck and I had to say “Yes, it really is him – say something.” So the kids all shouted “Viva il Papa, viva papa.” Then one of his close cardinals tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the kids (or more importantly me). Then the Pope waved and smiled and finally I could relax.

An endangered priesthood

Tagaytay city, Philippines

By Erik de Castro

I woke at dawn to the sound of a bell ringing and Gregorian Chant music at the Saint Augustine Minor Seminary compound on Mindoro island in the central Philippines. It was still dark as dozens of seminarians in the first phase of a 12-year journey to priesthood walked towards a chapel for their morning prayers and a mass.

I walked to the same chapel 41 years ago and left after more than two years in the seminary.

As I walked with them in the chilly air, I felt the seminary’s sprawling compound was so big now compared to the time I was there. Since 1962 when the seminary opened, there have been 1200 seminarians who have passed through, according to Father Andy Lubi. So far it has produced 72 priests, some who have already left for a variety of reasons. From the 100 recruited during an annual vocation campaign, 12 is the average number of candidates that enter the seminary per year.

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.