In 2004, Christopher Churchill began a personal journey with his vintage Deardorff 8×10 camera, driving thousands of miles across the country to photograph what he describes as “an America that felt divided” and “caught in the middle of a cultural tension.” It was three years after the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the photographer was noticing a palpable intolerance in the country. “Questions of what or who was considered American were very prevalent,” Churchill says. “And religion was in the middle of this debate.” This feeling led him to start asking people about their faith, and the resulting journey is the subject of his Chuchill’s first monograph, American Faith, published this month by Nazraeli Press.
In the introduction of the book, Churchill says, “I had assumed that in order to have faith in your life you must be religious. However, when I would ask individuals I encountered through my travels what they placed their faith in, their responses would be something much more universal and simple than religion.”
Churchill had no specific plan when he set out on the road, but followed an intuitive journey where one subject led to the next. How does someone document a faith or an idea that’s invisible? Churchill began by making formal yet intimate portraits of his subjects. Then he carefully weaved in recorded responses from his subjects to his questions about their beliefs. Thomas Putman of Ponca City, Oklaholma, who was photographed holding his young son, told Churchill, “I believe in God. But everybody has a different belief, and as long as it furthers you in life and gives you a better perspective on the things you do in life, then I don’t really care what you believe in.” The response is one of tolerance mixed with independence that feels intrinsic to American culture.
In the book, portraits are interspersed with landscapes and documentary photographs, adding contemplative spaces. In a photograph of tourists looking out at the majesty of the Grand Canyon, Churchill conjures ideas of American transcendentalism, which holds the idea that one must find themselves thought self reflection, which often takes place alone in nature. An image of such idyll could feel slightly ironic or trite, but not in the style of Churchill’s work. He creates a tableau in soft black and white, where the viewer is gently presented with a space to ponder the majesty themsleves.
Churchill himself was not raised with religion. “I find my faith these days is in my family, the kindness of strangers and or course photography,” he says. “I’ve found that if I can get my brain past the obstacles of any given day and think about time from a larger perspective, there seems to be a path that is perfectly sequential and beyond coincidental. And I find great faith in that.”