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  • September 23, 2015

Six National Geographic Photographers Look at the Heart of Faith

“Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.”—Khalil Gibran

The news of Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. inspired me to invite our photographers to share their personal images of faith. I was looking for photographs that might go beyond religious subjects and include any spiritual moments when they felt connected to a force larger than themselves. I wanted to encourage them to contemplate the questions of what they believe and what inspires them. What I see in these images is the communion they felt with the people they photographed and the powerful ways in which it moved them. —Elizabeth Krist, Senior Photo Editor

For a behind-the-scenes look at the Vatican, read the story “Will the Pope Change the Vatican” in the August 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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boy and elderly woman crossing wooden bridge
A boy helps an elderly woman across a footbridge in the Ethiopian village of Lalibela, 1994.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder
In 1994 I traveled to Lalibela, Ethiopia, to visit the monolithic rock-hewn churches built when the king of Lalibela set out to create a “New Jerusalem” in the 12th century. Despite [its] being such an important World Heritage historic site, it was very moving to see that Lalibela was still a living place for spirituality and devotion. All along the way there were pious worshippers draped in white cloth walking barefoot or riding donkeys on a pilgrimage. The whole scene [made it feel] like I was walking in an ancient biblical time. I stopped on a hillside and watched as a young boy led his blind grandmother by the hand across a wooden bridge spanning a deep ravine. David Guttenfelder
figurines near sea foam
Figurines of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, on the rocks beside Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Harbour, 2011.
Photograph by Mark Leong
On the salt-sprayed rocks beside Aberdeen Harbour, ocean-faring people have placed figurines of Kwun Yam, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, for her protection at sea. Whenever I visit Hong Kong, I am always struck by the matter-of-fact way the spiritual world integrates with daily life, especially compared to mainland China, where “superstitious” folk customs are still recovering from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

Hong Kongers are pragmatic: There is a need to believe in something, and that need is met. In the cracks and corners all over this hypermodern city, holding it together are shrines, fortune-tellers, coils of incense, money for the dead, and, yes, little porcelain goddesses who share their survival skills with fishermen—and with the occasional photographer dodging waves. Mark Leong

people waiting on couch
Ajaran landslide victims spend their last hour at home before eviction. Batumi, Georgia, 2006.
Photograph by Rena Effendi
In Batumi, Georgia, I photographed families that squatted inside a ghostly unfinished hotel building. They had lost their homes to a landslide in a mountainous region of Ajara. It was their last hour there, since private investors planned to demolish the building to accommodate a new hotel. The residents were pushed out to the streets with only meager compensation. On the day of the eviction the trucks roared outside as families frantically packed. Amidst the noisy commotion, I spotted a family in one of the rundown flats. They sat silently, huddled on a sofa bed with a clock on the wall above their heads. One woman was expecting a child and a toddler clutched a deflated rubber ball.

When I walked in with a camera mounted on a tripod, nobody moved—they gave me a silent approval. There was an otherworldly motionlessness, as though a special force kept everything still, almost a ready-made picture. I stood with them in the same tunnel of silent tension, where only the ticking of the clock was audible. Often, in moments like this, I feel the presence of a higher power, something I cannot control, yet a positive spirit that protects or enables the photographic process. Rena Effendi

men cleaning temple floor
Shwedagon Temple, Myanmar
Photograph by Michael Yamashita
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Myanmar. To be with the first of the faithful before dawn and watch the sun light up its spires is a magical experience. Only the sounds of birds and bells break the rhythmic swish of brooms on stone as worshippers gain merit by keeping the marble terrace clean for barefoot pilgrims. Michael Yamashita
children in mask play on bridge
My niece (left), on a new suspension bridge. Wuri, Taiwan, 2003.
Photograph by Chien-Chi Chang
During a visit to my ancestral home in central Taiwan in the summer of 2003, a masked boy came out of nowhere on the suspension bridge. He played a seemingly innocent prank on my three-year-old niece. She was so overwhelmed with fear and terror that she immediately sprinted to her mother in search of absolute protection, the kind of protection one might seek from a celestial being. Chien-Chi Chang
women carry candles
Girls wearing cloaks prepare to march in a Good Friday religious procession in Lessines, Belgium, on March, 29, 2013.
Photograph by Tomas van Houtryve
I discovered the town of Lessines while walking across Belgium’s language border while on assignment for the Dutch edition of National Geographic. On Good Friday, all the lights in the town are turned off and a somber torchlight procession takes place, symbolizing the burial of Christ. Those at the head of the procession beat the drums of death and wear executioner’s hoods. The tradition has taken place every year in Lessines since 1475. For those unaccustomed to the way Catholicism was practiced during the Middle Ages, the mood feels downright creepy, even sinister. At the end of the ceremony, an effigy of Christ is slid into a tomb, and the inhabitants of the town switch on the lights. The heavy mood is suddenly lifted. Faces and joyous voices emerge from under their hoods. Like [at] the end of the dark northern European winter, you can feel that the lighters days of spring are just ahead. Tomas van Houtryve


View more incredible photographs of Faith in Elizabeth Krist’s recent Your Shot assignment.

There are 2 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Connie Koehler
    September 26, 2015

    These are very expressive photographs of hope, faith (trust), happiness, and little bit of sadness. The little girl crying in fear of the mask reminds me of my grandson. I told him not to wear his mask in front of his little cousin because she will get scared. He didn’t understand the cognitive thinking at that time and did not believe me. So, he put it on to show his aunt who was holding my grandson’s cousin. Sure enough, his cousin began screaming and kicking. AWE!! My grandson quickly took off his mask to let her know it was him. She calmed down.

    Thank you for your time.

  2. Santosh
    September 24, 2015

    Feels like part of the photographs.

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