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Travel Photography Subjects: Religion

100304-183454-9742 This post is number four of twenty one subjects that will help you focus when on your next journey and wish to bring back a well rounded story of where you were.  If you’re just going on vacation and only want pictures of yourself by the pool sipping boat drinks, then you can probably skip this one.  These posts are not intent on telling you everything you need to do, step by step, to capture perfect, cookie-cutter pictures while traveling.  Instead, they are intent on pointing out some vital elements to capture when on the road and ask thought provoking questions you may want to ask yourself.  My hope is they help guide you to find your own means to better expressing what your travels have meant to you and present that in the best light possible.

Now then, religion.  Like water, it will be everywhere you go.  Sometimes on the surface and pervasive to a culture.  Sometimes more subtle and maybe kept private.  As a  traveler, excited and open eyed, it may be easy to spot the religious influences in a distant land.  For one thing, if the religion is predominant to a particular area and it wasn’t obvious back home, it’ll be in your face.  The photo at right is Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco.  I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the USA where Islam is not a high profile religion, so when I traveled to Morocco with its rich Islamic culture and mosques around every corner, it was fairly easy to spot its influence and importance to the culture.

But beyond the obvious, it takes some effort to go a little deeper, especially in areas with a large mix of religions.  Tucked into an unassuming section of the large souq in Fez, is a centuries old Jewish Synagogue.  Our guide goes on to tell us of the history of Jews in of Morocco, a slice of history for which I was totally oblivious until this trip.  After the visit to the Synagogue I started noticing more and more Jewish and Christian influences here and there.  Small, subtle and often tucked away, but they too had an influence in the architecture, language and customs in some form.

While discussing religion can certainly be a powder keg in different areas of the world (and some areas you’d never expect it to be a hot button, too!) my best advice, as with most things while traveling, is approach the subject with an open mind.  If what you’re doing is trying to bring back a representation of the lands you are visiting, then you may need to bend outside your own view of home and try to see the home land through the eyes of those that live in this ‘foreign’ culture.  It’s only foreign to you, others are living it every day.  It may be that the religious influences you find are close to your own and that familiarity will help.  But invariably there is something different about where you’re traveling, for that is one of the main reasons for travel!

Exploring religion photographically takes a bit of courage because it will probably require you to step outside your comfort zone.  But the rewards are worth it.  Find out from a local (hotel clerk, taxi driver, bartender, food vendor, etc…) if you are allowed to visit a place of worship if the religion is different than your own (assuming you have a religion as not every one does).  Witnessing a worship service with your camera put away will help immerse you in the cultural differences.  Also ask those attending the ceremony or directing it, if you get a chance to meet them, if photographs are allowed.  Treat photography inside a place of worship with the same respect as if you were the guest in a house.

And don’t forget to look for religion in the little things.  How does it influence the art, language and clothing where you are?  How is it practiced in the home, if you get a chance to visit a local home?  How does it influence the food and eating habits?  History and even city layouts?  On the opposite side, some areas you visit may have very few signs of religion which is an expression of the culture as well.

Religion need not be a point of contention when traveling.  Chances are, you’ll find differences, large and small, to what you are accustom to back home.  Explore them with an open mind and lens to see learn more about the culture you’re visiting.  And you’ll return home with a well rounded story of where you’ve been.

By all means, please share your religious travel photographs in the comments section below.

Previous subjects in this series include Water, Old People and Young People.  Be sure to subscribe to the this site to receive the other 17 subjects to follow!

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Peter West Carey

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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