A year of “faith in isolation” in photographs
In this year of pandemic, photographer and social justice activist from Beacon Hill Brenda Bancel moved away from her camera to showcase other people’s work. His gifts as curator are on display at Hebrew College, where 40 photographs make up the astonishing exhibition “Faith in isolation expressed. The images reflect how the three Abrahamic religions have adapted rituals and tradition in this unprecedented public health crisis.
“This moment was so shocking and shocking; the last thing I wanted to do was put it in my camera and watch it over and over again, ”Bancel noted in a recent interview. “I didn’t feel like I had to do my own work, but I was very happy when I watched photojournalism of people getting creative to be together in faith groups. Bancel asked local religious communities to send her photos related to the cult and featured them alongside related images around the world that she pulled from Getty Images. “It was wonderful to see people fighting to trust these images,” she said. “They knew they needed this faith and dug deep to be creative and support each other.”
Bancel said Hebrew College and its Miller Center for Interfaith Learning and Leadership was the right home for the exhibit. She and Hebrew College Development Director Rosa Frank had wanted to collaborate on an interfaith art project during this time of COVID-19. The exhibition, funded by a grant from CJP, is also the inaugural project of Hebrew College’s new art initiative.
“Faith in Isolation,” Hebrew College’s first public exhibit since the start of the pandemic, is on display on the school’s Newton campus through June 6. Deborah Feinstein, Art Initiative Fellow and Hebrew College Board Member, described the show as “punchy and emotional.” She added, “Faith does not have to be centered on God. There must also be trust and connection. “
Feinstein said she and Bancel chose to leave the photographs unframed for the exhibition – they described the individual images with thin black lines. “We wanted the exhibit to be lightweight and pressed directly onto the wall for aesthetic and practical reasons,” said Feinstein. “We hope to take the exhibit to another location and we didn’t want to ruin the wall in the dismantling process.”
Rabbi Rose Gold, the founding director of the Miller Center, noted that hosting “Faith in Isolation” was important to Hebrew College. “Hebrew College is a deliberately pluralistic institution,” he said. “We are working diligently to involve Jewish students and leaders from different walks of Jewish life. We highly value people who believe and practice Judaism differently to study together, sing together, and walk together. These things necessarily involve maintaining the tension between similarity and difference.
Rose, Bancel and Feinstein agreed that the exhibit is what Rose described as “a very powerful tool for open-hearted conversations about loss, grief, resilience, hope and creativity.” The images range from poignant to stunning. There is the man dressed in a Santa Claus costume disinfecting the pews of a church. Muslims answer the call to prayer in a parking lot. Makeshift partitions in the women’s section of the Western Wall keep worshipers at a social distance.
Rose also praised Bancel for her “creative and compassionate vision, and the humility to say that at a time when she couldn’t pick up her camera, she turned to other photographers to have this conversation. He also commended the college arts committee for “standing up for us and helping us understand that the aesthetic of the spiritual life is very important.”
‘Faith in Isolation’ was further illuminated at a panel discussion in which Rose and Bancel were joined by religious leaders Dr Celene Ibrahim, professor and specialist in Islam, and the Reverend Dr Shively TJ Smith, professor in the School of Theology at Boston University. The three panelists started the virtual program by citing the images from the exhibition which particularly impressed them. Dr Smith described the photograph of a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Zoom. “The entire scene,” she said, “created a space virtually to remember the journeys of our ancestors and our communities. This image represents a deep resilience in our faith and can be the catalyst to create and imagine what it means for us to come together as people of faith.
A photo of the Kaaba in Mecca, where people walked quietly, impressed Dr Ibrahim. Normally, a pilgrimage to Mecca is a crowded, if not somewhat chaotic experience. But the pandemic, she said, brought about a need for order and organization that didn’t exist before. She pointed out that new technologies have been put in place to reserve hours and ensure the safety of people during the pandemic. “I relish the chaos at times, but I also crave this tidy and organized way of experiencing the spirituality and sanctity of this place,” she said.
Rose said a photograph of a masked African American boy with a sign reading “Rest” moved her. “[The image] has crossed me on many levels, ”he said. “What is rest during a pandemic?” What does the earth, the divine, tell us about the normal rhythms of life and the way we are constantly restless? He noted that rest has come at a cost in the past year of social upheaval. The pandemic, he said, “exposed long-standing injustices and, in some cases, exacerbated it.” He added, “How is this boy going to grow up, given that systemic racism is shocking and painful?”
Bancel, who briefly appeared on the show, brought up the powerful image of the redwood that she so elegantly referred to in her statement for “Faith in Isolation.” She said the redwood is one of the oldest and largest tree species in the world and grows continuously throughout its lifetime. It is not unusual for trees to live 3,000 years and reach 300 feet in height. But they can only reproduce if their pine cones are set on fire to split open and release the seeds they contain. “For the sequoia to bear life, it must suffer,” she wrote. But fire is not the greatest danger to trees; it is their shallow roots, which cannot support their large size and weight.
Bancel explained that for trees to live, they grow close to each other and pull each other’s roots for support. She observed that the survival of the sequoias is the perfect metaphor for the importance of community in a pandemic. “We all pulled each other to make sure we didn’t fall,” she said. “It showed that even the strongest are vulnerable and that sometimes suffering can lead to a good harvest.”
Learn more about “Faith in Isolation Expressed” and plan a visit here.