you may have noticed the site is a little different lately. in fact, it's all brand new. there are a lot of new images, some old ones are gone, and there is even a whole new section: the atheist convention.
these pictures were shot a while ago, in october of 2012, actually, at the freedom from religion foundation's annual conference. in 2012 the conference was being held in portland, oregon. i do not live in portland, but i welcome any opportunity or excuse to head to overcast, rainy climates. it's my favorite type of weather. more importantly, over the past few years i've found myself increasingly enjoying shooting at conferences and conventions. these are places where large numbers of people gather who all do very specialized things, or who all have very specific interests. as a photographer i've never cared all that much for group portraits. i can shoot them relatively comfortably but nine times out of ten they don't hold as much interest for me later on as the individual shots might. i've photographed at a few of these kinds of events before (here and here) and it's really like a photographer's dream. i mean, the hardest thing about taking pictures is just finding the subjects and getting them to show up. conventions solve this problem for you. everybody's there. everybody's kind of happy to be there, since most of them are there instead of being at work, and there's often catering. i try to set up as close to where the food is as possible, even though i never have time to eat, myself. if there are free pastries and coffee ten feet away i'm sure to get a crowd.
back in the early fall of 2012 i was driving around listening to NPR and heard an interview with dan barker, co-president of the freedom from religion foundation. dan was talking about their upcoming conference in portland. i thought to myself man, i wish i could go shoot that. a few days later, just mulling it over, i figured, what the hell, maybe i can. i emailed the FFRF and told them i wanted to come and take portraits at the conference. of course, they said "why?"
the modern age comes with benefits and drawbacks for the photographer. in one sense it's an incredible blessing that we live in an era where you can easily get in touch with almost anyone you might want to photograph. however, that connectedness also comes with a price. we have a much greater cultural awareness of pictures, of what they do, of what they can mean, and most especially of how they can skew the image we'd like to project or skew the image we'd like to protect. so while subjects are often accessible, they can sometimes be vastly more wary and suspicious.
ultimately, though, in this case, simply not having a plan, an end goal or a reason worked in my favor. why did i want to go take portraits at this conference? just because. i was interested in the people and it sounded like a cool thing, like an unusual thing. as a general rule atheists aren't atheists because they all like to congregate together. it's a world view that can be isolating, especially if you happen to find yourself an atheist in a part of the country that is fairly hostile to non-believers (i.e., most of it). i was insistent that i had no particular plans for the images, which was true. honestly, i didn't even expect a response, so hadn't really thought through how i wanted them to look in the first place, or what i was going to do with them. sometimes as a photographer you just want the experience. the pictures are their own ends, and it doesn't go any further than that. i figured that if anything they'd end up on my site or in my portfolio and it'd just be a fun thing to do, something gratifying and personal amidst a whole lot of commissioned work to which i don't always have deep attachments.
they relented and agreed to help as much as i needed them to. that is to say, i'd get a space to set up and a power outlet, and then i'd be on my own. really, that's all i ever ask of anyone, and given that there was no particular advantage or motivation for the FFRF to be so accommodating i considered the offer to be tremendously generous. i will never in my life stop marveling at the willingness of strangers to be interested in and helpful to an artistic cause. in photography i find this especially remarkable as you can't be a portrait photographer without the possibility of treading dangerously on someone's vanity in a manner they might find unpleasant. we're all too aware of this now, photographers and subjects both, and more than ever it really is a gift when someone agrees to have their picture taken.
headed into the conference i found myself in a situation that i hadn't previously considered. i found myself talking around my own atheism. at the time i was teaching a community college portrait class. many of my students were undoubtedly religious. as this is america, many of the people around me were religious. i had to take time off teaching in order to attend the conference, so it was known that i was going somewhere. the specifics of the matter, though, i suddenly felt very uncomfortable talking about.
i have never been inclined to be anything less than vocal about beliefs i consider unfounded and nonsensical. i have, myself, veered into what some of my friends would call militant atheism. this didn't start until my late twenties. i mean, i had always been an atheist, raised as an atheist, but it didn't become a thing until i spent significant time around religious people and became more involved in the world at large. as a kid and as a teenager, raised in a very liberal, bi-coastal showbiz family, everybody around me was an atheist – or more specifically, a jewish atheist. we acknowledged jewish traditions, but didn't observe any jewish holidays. to be fair the traditions we honored were as follows: matzo ball soup, a dislike of camping and a healthy (unhealthy?) appreciation of self-pity and anxiety. my family celebrated chanukah exactly one time but decided that eight days of doing anything was way too much effort. christmas was easier, and over in 24 hours. i only went to temple for other people's bar mitzvahs, and then really only for the food. i read the bible because i was interested in myths and literature and found it way more violent and outlandish than greek mythology, which i liked much better.
but a belief in god, in a young-earth creationism especially, and in a literal bible was something that was never an issue. nobody believed that stuff, or so i thought. i didn't meet an actual christian until i was in college, and at first i thought they were kidding. later on, as a photographer, when it was my job to go into the homes of strangers, relate to them, empathize with them and depict them in an honest and dignified manner, only then did i really encounter religion in the way that most of america embraces it. to be blunt, it kind of freaked me out.
later, as i was working on the hearts book, religion started to really not sit right with me. it was easy to rationalize why these beliefs were important for families under tremendous amount of duress, facing impossible circumstances. even so, i worried that believing in "god's plan" simply removed accountability from people's lives. i'm big on accountability. also, i saw the incredible efforts of physicians, scientists, engineers and medical professionals almost being discarded in favor of giving god credit for saving a child. beyond that i began to really notice the increasing power of the religious right in politics – and even more gallingly, education – in america and the realization that us non-believers were a minority was terrifying and upsetting.
the fact that human brains are really good at compartmentalizing things, very good at cognitive dissonance, made things a little easier to swallow. normally when you find out that someone honestly and truly believes in a god that seems like a cross between an omnipotent imaginary friend and the NSA, it kind of makes you doubt their critical thinking skills in other areas of life. but the truth is that really smart people can believe in really dumb things. my wife drinks kombucha and insists it's good for her. hell, i'm sure that i believe in some pretty stupid things, myself.
there's a difference between having a belief in the literal, word-for-word interpretation of the bible (the current bible, not any of the other translations or versions) and having a belief in religion as a whole, or as a way to feel some security and comfort about the world. the latter belief i can understand. i don't agree with it, but i can wrap my head around it. people need comfort and reassurance and it doesn't have to happen in ways that make logical sense. for myself and for the people pictured here, i think it comes down to the fact that we don't want laws made or public policy decided based on religion. In a country where the separation of church and state is more of an advertising slogan than a reality this seems like a legitimate concern.
so i went to portland, keeping my fingers crossed, not knowing what i was going to get. in the end i photographed approximately eighty people in a day and a half. i went alone, with pared down gear and no assistant. tried to get people to fill out a short questionnaire i had made since words and pictures together are always better, and i didn't have the ability to photograph and interview them at the same time. when i got home i was dead tired, and slowly began sifting through the questionnaires and the photos. for a very long while i didn't do anything with the pictures.
i finished a handful of them that stood out to me right away, but the project as a whole felt unfinished and incomplete. ideologically, to me, they were interesting subjects. but photographically, as a project, my being in agreement with them insofar as world view went didn't make it feel done. the collection felt to me like an incomplete thought. to be very honest, it still does in some ways.
ultimately i thought they needed a counterpoint. no matter how much i might like what a subject has to say, one side of a story is never as interesting as both sides of a story. the thing that would really make it work would be to shoot another eighty people, but this time i was going to go for evangelical christians. the pictures would then be paired as diptychs, one atheist, one christian. funny shirts notwithstanding, the only way to know who was who would be to read the captions. at that point it would be photographically done in my brain, as it would have the quality that i really love about portraiture. done right and especially in large quantities portraiture takes on as much a sociological theme as it does an artistic one. any good working photographer should be perfectly at home photographing subjects they don't agree with, and i certainly am. i don't care who the subject is, for the picture to work you really do have to fall in love with your subject a little. you have to appreciate their life. you have to empathize with their hopes and beliefs. i thought that if i could get these set up as diptychs with christians not only would it be good for the project, it might be good for me. maybe it'd make me a little more tolerant and a little less militant. maybe it would help each side just a bit.
sadly, though, it hasn't happened yet. since i returned from the conference in october of 2012 i've been trying to find a church, a christian conference or convention or any organization at all that would allow me to photograph its members. i've made appeals to a more than a dozen organizations. usually i get no response. sometimes a polite but firm no thanks, we're not interested. a handful of times i reached out to people who really seemed to get the idea and go for it, only to be shut down later by those higher up (but still earthly) in their organizations. over a decade ago i spent the day with a man who was headed for a degree in finance and instead switched gears to become a christian missionary in the poorest parts of los angeles. he was incredible, empathetic, admirable and whip smart. he liked the project very much, and tried to bring it to his church (a hip, youthful church in hollywood with a rock n' roll bent) but they were too wary of outsiders and of appearing to sponsor something that might question the nature of belief. it's been very frustrating. like i said, finding the subjects is almost always the hardest part.
feeling like the project was still incomplete i've kept the photos hidden away. i liked enough of the individual portraits, though, that it felt like it was something worth showing. in redesigning the site i finally dug them out of the archive, finally typed up the answers to the questionnaires (however many of them were actually written in complete sentences) and tried to put it all together in a presentable manner here. for now it's half of the story. hopefully someday i'll get the other half.