I encountered a dilemma that has perplexed me for years as a religious studies student during the second week of journalism school — religious tourism.
It was obvious that I would cover a Muslim prayer ceremony when we received the assignment to report on a D.C. area event listed in the AP Daybook. After six years of study religion academically, a religious event was exactly the story I wanted.
Excitedly I showed up over an hour early. I explored the space and spoke with the people present. As the crowd slowly increased, I engaged academics, religious leaders and archeologists.
I hit the source jackpot for a prayer event in memory of an enslaved Muslim from colonial Georgetown. All I needed was a photo and I could head home to write.
Then attendees lined up to pray.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Muslim prayers in person and it wouldn’t be the last.
The men stood in two lines with the women lining up behind them. Women wore headscarves in pinks and greens complimenting and contrasting their outfits. The array of colors was stunning.
Even the amateur photographer that I am knew this was the photo I needed for my story.
After one shot, I paused. Something felt wrong.
I had already determined I would not be able to photograph the men praying, as I did not want to violate the practice of women praying behind men to prevent distraction. So stepping in front of the Imam to get the men’s faces was out of the question to me.
Yet something else troubled me.
Dozens of conversations and debates about being an outsider at a sacred event flooded my mind.
Was I being invasive? Even though this was a public event I questioned whether I was forcing myself upon a private act. My academic mind began debating the characteristics of private versus public religion. Needless to say that was a rabbit hole.
Was photographing prayer voyeuristic? Was I treating this religious act as an object of entertainment for readers and viewers of the story? Would it have been morally better to use the general, boring images I captured of people socializing or the speakers talking to the crowd?
Was I taking religion seriously?
In the end, I reconciled my shooting photos of prayer by telling myself that it was a public event and attendees knew non-Muslims would be in attendance. There were other journalists present,
some of whom were also taking photos.
I’m happy I didn’t prevent myself from taking more photos, because I captured the image you see to the left. It may not be the best, but when I look at it I am transported back to that prayerful moment. I recall the hushed recitation of the Imam and the looks of reflective meditation on women’s faces. Most of all, I remember the colors and that is what I think the image conveys.
I knew entering journalism school would be difficult. It would require me to learn a whole new style of writing and force me outside my library comfort zone. However, I didn’t think I would encounter personal moral dilemmas about covering religion stories. I’d been covering religion academically for years.
I’m glad I faced this dilemma though.
It’s nice to be surprised by yourself and to learn what scholastic ethics I unconsciously developed as a student of religion that I may or may not have to break in order to ensure a story gets covered.
There are three lessons I walk away with:
- Photography for journalism is uncomfortable, for both the photographer and the subject. It becomes even more uncomfortable when doing religion photography.
- Being a woman may pose problems for me when trying to write about or shoot images of a religious group or event that is divided by gender.
- I am going to have to constantly reassess what it means to be religiously respectful as I try to be a religion journalist.
I will face more dilemmas and obstacles as I progress through the journalism graduate program at American University. I look forward to these future instances with trepidation and excitement. There are only more lessons to learn and I hope to continue sharing my experiences of covering religion in this blog.