Story Behind the Picture: Priests at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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I captured this image early on in my journey as a photographer. Helen and I were amidst a year-long odyssey traveling around the world when we managed to squeeze in a month in Israel. It was barely two months after September 11th and world tensions, especially in the Middle East, were running high. The United States had identified "The Axis of Evil" which included Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The fear in Israel at the time was the Iraq had poison gas that it would launch into Israel if provoked by rhetoric or worse by the United States. All of which is to say, I have two distinct memories of our time in Israel. The first being that every Israeli walked around with a gas mask dangling from his or her belt - a government mandate to be prepared in event of a surprise chemical attack. Of course, when I asked our family and friends if Helen and I were at risk without a gas mask (tourists didn't warrant them), we were met with smiles and polite laughter. My second memory is the story behind this picture.

Photographing people on the street is not easy. In some basic ways, it's like many athletic endeavors. The hardest part may be mental. After that, talent takes over. The mental hurdle to be jumped should be obvious. Most of us are wired to be cautious when invading someone else's personal space. But that's precisely what's required to capture an image like this one. As I've said before, I don't take pictures like this with a telephoto lens. All of my shots of people were captured up close and personal. For me, this also requires tacit permission that's gained without disturbing the shot. That's a tough needle to thread at times.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in case you're unfamiliar, contains what is believed by many to be both the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and his tomb. As arguably the holiest site of all Christianity, this single building is shared by several Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Egyptian Copts, Syriacs and Ethiopians. It's a fantastic melange of people and beliefs, a stone's throw from the holiest site in Judaism (the site of the First and Second Temple) and the second holiest site in Islam (The Dome of the Rock).

A minor albeit not trivial footnote. The Dome of the Rock sits atop the exact site of both the First and Second Temples and is but 1,500 feet from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Which is to say, no matter your beliefs, it's hard to ignore that something important for humanity has happened here in this tiny postage stamp piece of real estate.

With that sobering appreciation for the history of where we were visiting, Helen and I wandered Jerusalem and eventually explored this landmark church. As one walks through the church, quite freely, I might add - one is struck by the range of priests and priestly garb - each group sticking visibly clearly to his section of the church.

This was November 2001 - I was shooting with a very basic film camera and a single 35-70 lens. I typically had between 15-20 rolls of film with me at any one time. And I was painfully aware that film was a limited (and expensive) resource for me. Which is to say, I was judicious with my shooting.

When I saw these two Greek Orthodox Priests talking, I knew I needed to photograph them. I also knew this was not a one and done situation. I needed to both get up close and then relax and shoot a series of images from which I could then edit and select later on. My first challenge was entirely mental. Who was I to step in, invade the space of these two priests and take (TAKE!) pictures of them? My mother's voice rattled around in my head, "photographers don't give pictures, they take them," she said with scorn reserved for the only photographer in our family at the time she said this to me, her ex-husband, my father.

The path of least resistance in that situation was clear. I could take a picture from a distance - a bad one at that - and move on. That would have been extremely easy. And it was, truthfully, a very compelling option. The thought of stepping forward, into position, and raising my camera made me nervous. My muscles tensed. I began to sweat. All of this for a photograph? My brain began to rationalize all the reasons to forget the scene and move on. Everything, of course, transpired over a matter of seconds. The shot isn't worth the effort. By the time you step up and after they notice you, the shot will have been lost. There will be other opportunities to face your fear and photograph people I told myself.

I hesitated. And then decided to subdue all the concerns - the rationalizations. If I were to be a photographer in the tradition that I demanded of myself, then I needed to slay this fear right there, right then. And so I stepped forward into the fray, possibly a bit too anxiously. The two priests were engaged in a spirited and private conversation. Their energy reminded me of my father and uncle at a family gathering, inevitably squirreled away in a corner somewhere discussing (read: disagreeing) on one topic or another and with passion. I had no idea what the two priests were discussing, I only knew that for my photograph to work, they needed to keep at it and resist distraction.

Now standing five feet away from them and clearly facing these two men, one of them glanced at me for a moment. I instinctively lifted my camera up toward my eye while asking with a subtle combination of hand and face gestures if I could take pictures. The priest nodded and went back to his conversation. I was in business. I took several images, moving slightly from left to right as I did. This one image is, hands down, my favorite from the few frames I captured.

There's a lot going on for me. The dip of the head, the hand gesture, the priest in the foreground who established that this is a conversation. I love the texture of the stone wall behind the priest. And, clearly, the play of light from left to right is near perfect. If I had had lights with me (and knew how to use them), this movement of light is exactly what I would have aimed for. In all, I don't know if I like the image better for its aesthetic or its story - and that's what makes it, for me, a great image.

I shot five frames, before the Priest waved me off. "That's enough," he said, and he was right.

From "The Story Behind the Picture" Blog