Vantage
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Vantage

In the Absence of Beat Reporters Covering Religion, Photojournalists Fill the Gaps

Noteworthy photographers capturing real presence

An article posted today has been gaining a lot of traction — tweets, retweets, and tweet threads — from religion media types. It’s an NPR interview with The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet that includes some insight into the state of religion reporting at the Times. Baquet said:

I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans. I think that the New York-based (and Washington-based too probably) media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better.

While it’s true that NYT is sadly down to just one religion reporter Laurie Goodstein, she’s not exactly alone. She has been accompanied, at times, by photojournalists who share at least a basic understanding of religion and the role it plays in the lives of its adherents. It’s time to give credit where credit’s due.

Earlier this year Goodstein traveled to Iowa to talk to evangelicals who felt disenfranchised by their election options. She was accompanied by George Etheredge, whose photographs met Goodstein’s words at just the point where they could go no further, evoking the “Iowa nice” character and sincerity that defined the tone of the piece.

“Prayer Changes Things.” George Etheredge/The New York Times (*Fair Use note)

Etheredge isn’t a “religion photographer” like Abbas, or Diana Markosian — the title “religion photographer” may take a life’s work to come by. Etheredge is, however, an excellent all-around photojournalist who added layers of insight and meaning without falling for the visual religion cliches that often act more as decoration for, than windows into, a story. All this before running off to cover the next assignment, maybe a press conference or a tennis match.

Etheredge’s photos aren’t the only example of good religion photojournalism to accompany or stand in for dwindling religion reporters. San Antonio Express-News photographer Lisa Krantz made an ALS victim’s Christian faith tangible not by simply photographing him in prayer but, incredibly, by making him a kind of Christ. Celebrity photographer Danielle Levitt set up a portrait studio at New York’s hottest megachurch to break out of millennial evangelical caricatures and give the rest of us a sense we might have something in common with these people. Rivard Report photographer Scott Ball discovered profound community and meaning-making at a simple Sikh construction project (he wrote the accompanying article, too). Several photographers clued into the shared belief — both religious and non-religious — in the sanctity of land at Standing Rock.

From top left: Larry Towell/Magnum, Scott Ball/Rivard Report, Danielle Levitt/GQ, Lisa Krantz/San Antonio Express-News (*Fair Use note)

Thank God these publications are still sending photographers to cover religion stories. They could still use more (and more qualified) religion reporters, but given adequate time and resources photojournalists are pretty good at picking up the slack and telling compelling, nuanced religion stories that go beyond obvious iconographies and into religion’s role in everyday life.

This is possible because unlike reporting, photography is by necessity a medium of proximity and time; of presence. Presence is what allows a photographer to capture candid, vulnerable moments even while lugging a 30-pound shoulder rig. Presence is what allows a photographer to see in greater context the role religion plays in a subject’s life. And after the media’s renewed enthusiasm to “get religion” fades, photographers will still be there, present.

*Fair Use note: To the best of my knowledge the use of these photographs in this context (purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching) falls under Fair Use. But please feel free to get in touch if you have any concerns).

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Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

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KC McGinnis

KC McGinnis

Editorial photographer based in the Upper Midwest. I also write about depictions of religion in news media and photography. kcmcginnis.com.