Documenting religion

Our enduring fascination with other people’s worship has long compelled photographers to capture different practices and faiths. Here, three photographers who focus on religion share their approaches and their personal motivation for the work

“Religion is this weird, mysterious, secretive thing,” says Brooklyn-based photographer Jackson Krule. “Even if it isn’t, it feels like it is, because if you’re on the outside you can’t really understand it, and even with one foot in, it can still be difficult to understand.”

Since 2017 Krule has ­documented the ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel, a village in Orange County, New York, where the vast majority of its residents are Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews who belong to the worldwide Satmar Hasidic sect. The ongoing series was prompted by Krule’s own Orthodox upbringing. “The niche term in my community was ‘modern Orthodox’. So we loved tradition, but we viewed it as more of a modern take on Judaism, ­whereas the ultra-Orthodox community has been practicing the same way for 300 years,” Krule explains. “In school, when I was learning about the different sects of Judaism, I naïvely thought that the ultra-­Orthodox community was perhaps the most ­pious, the most devout, almost like they were the ones who were doing it the right way.”

While there is a lot of literature and writing about ultra-Orthodox communities, and Kiryas Joel in particular, Krule was curious to find out what living a devout life was like. He was keen to capture the big celebrations, but also observe the quieter moments, and his images flit nicely between large crowded group shots full of ­energy and softer solo images or more intimate family moments.

Top and Above: From the series Kiryas Joel, 2017-present, by Jackson Krule

An important part of Krule’s process was making good connections with the community. “I didn’t want to be perceived as this person who parachutes into a community, so I chose a minor holiday that the community celebrates in a very large way, Lag B’Omer. It’s the time between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, which are two very important holidays,” says Krule. “Obviously, I stood out; I still wore a head covering to signal that I was Jewish, but I caught the attention of someone, and I was very lucky to have met him because he understands what I’m trying to do.” Having this link has meant Krule has been invited to big events and even been kept abreast of changes in the ­village; for instance, it recently became its own town after breaking ties with the secular community next door.

When starting the project, Krule had the important work of Russian-American photographer Roman Vishniac, who is most known for documenting the culture of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, in his mind. “Not only was he an amazing anthropologist and understood these communities deeply, but what I liked about his photos was that he didn’t try to make them something they weren’t,” says Krule. “He photographed the ­people as they were, the good and the bad. And I really admired that.”