Christopher Chruchhill's American Faith: A Book Review by Antone Dolezal
Christopher Churchill American Faith
Photographs by Christopher Churchill. Essay by Arno Rafael Minkkinen
Nazraeli Press, Portland, 2011. Hardbound. 112 pp., 48 duotone illustrations, 12x13".
In a nation polarized by starkly different personal and cultural beliefs, it's hard to imagine that Christopher Churchill's monograph American Faith wouldn't have its own slanted perspective. The title alone conjures a notion of an America deeply enveloped in a veil of religious temperament. Political America is without a doubt divided among the lines of those of faith and those without. So it was a surprising revelation to absorb Churchill's first publication and have my own assumptions of what the definition of faith is and can be thrown out the window.
Churchill set out in 2004, making short trips throughout the United States and exploring the idea of what it is that defines an individual's faith. Assuming that in order to have faith one must be religious, the photographer's own notions quickly dissolved. Instead, he found an America full of people who spoke to a more universal outlook than one of simple religious dogma. I imagine this would be a surprise to many of us who -- for the majority of the year -- are stuck in our own microcosm of community and circular dialogue. But this realization gave Churchill the reason to continue and explore the universal similarities we as a country hold, despite an overwhelming effort from those on television to tell us otherwise. This new perspective also allowed the photographer to approach his subject without preconceived judgment, which from this writer's viewpoint is what makes American Faith such a powerful book.
The diversity of personal belief in this collection is staggering. Sure, there are those who handle snakes and faint from the loud roar of the preacher man speaking in tongues. While a cornerstone for such a project, these images play into a more stereotypical notion of faith in America, and for me become less engaging. But Churchill also makes less expected encounters, such as Shana, a prostitute from Wells, Nevada. Here we see the subtle beauty of Shana's profession -- one that helps men play out violent fantasies in a controlled environment rather than inflict their own personal horror on the outside world. The viewer immediately understands that through her own sacrifice, Shana has made a positive impact on society and this is something that carries faith and validation for her.
Even more curious are those who find faith in the supernatural or extraterrestrial. Julie Shuster's account of her father's encounter with the famous UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico expands upon the diversity of what it is American's have faith in. For Julie, this otherworldly phenomenon gives an experience of overwhelming peace and understanding. And for this project, develops Churchill's intent in displaying that no matter how diverse or culturally odd our beliefs, many of us strive for the same comforts and peace of mind.
Through his many travels, the photographer's own concept of faith began to broaden and impact the work in this book. As Churchill states, "I came to understand this is the essence of faith, not a faith in religion but a faith in something greater than ourselves that helps us to fully realize the context of what it means to be human, and to accept our differences through an understanding of commonality." Here we are able to see Churchill's project come around from a preconceived assumption of faith to a fundamental understanding of the human condition. In many ways American Faith is just as much a story about American culture as it is a personal journey of an individual coming to terms with their own concepts of faith and personal belief. As Churchill's own convictions evolved, so did the photographs in this book, allowing for a narrative that speaks to both intimate pilgrimage and cultural commonality.—ANTONE DOLEZAL