Photography in an Orthodox Church

St. Elijah mass in a village church, Bulgaria. @ Ellie Ivanova, 2012

Anyone who has been in an Eastern Othodox church in Europe has admired the beautiful iconography and ethereal atmosphere of those architectural gems.  But if you’ve attempted to take a picture to record your experience, you’ve probably been stopped by the stern voice of the priest. Or you’ve seen the “no photography” sign at the door and didn’t even dare raise the camera to your eye.  And maybe you’ve felt both frustrated and puzzled by this prohibition.

So, why is photography in an Orthodox church frowned upon, even outside of mass? Is it a practical necessity or a doctrine? After all, the reason some priests give is: “this is a church, you can’t take pictures here”; it’s not that they forbid just the use of flash for fear of ruining the frescoes. Some would add that it’s disrespectful, others, that it’s too secular an act for a church.

Actually,  the reason is spiritual. Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which is the traditional faith in most of Eastern Europe from Greece to Russia, places a particular emphasis on mysticism, the psychological state of being in direct contact with the divine. So everything in a church – the visual impact of icons, the flicker of candles, the smell of incense, the chants of the mass; in sum, everything that helped create the special atmosphere in the first place – is meant to inspire that direct personal immersion.

Which makes for an interesting question about the role of photography in this process and how does it potentially interfere with the mystic experience.

One might say that the flash and the click of the camera could destroy the atmosphere and hence the experience – but we assume, of course, that no flash is used and no click is heard. It’s not really the physical effect of picture-taking, but rather the role of the photographer. Since mysticism is understood as a state of unity with God, which is sacred and intimate, the photographer becomes a witness of an intimate act, which could violate that privacy of the believer.

You could retort, but praying in a church is never private anyway, and it’s not embarrassing to begin with. The other worshipers present – and even the occasional iconography-aficionado – watch everything you do, all the time. Why is it OK to be watched in your act of praying or candle-lighting and not OK to be captured on film doing it?

I didn’t exactly get an answer to that. Perhaps the problem is that in a church everyone is supposed to be an invested participant, while a camera in your hand makes you an outside witness; what you observe becomes a spectacle when it should be an immersion. Or maybe because a picture takes away the context and trivializes one separate instance of the experience, thus skewing its meaning. Or, it could be related to the Orthodox aversion to anything mechanic happening in church, which is why no musical instruments are used in church music.

But one of the main aspects of mysticism is contemplation. Photography, as a mechanical extension of contemplation, could be a tool for enhancing it and that might well serve its purpose instead of interfering with it. Digitally-produced and institutionally disseminated copies of miraculous icons are popular in Bulgaria, for example, and pictures of a favorite church interior or of a magical moment from a mass could keep inspiring a worshiper outside of it.  In fact, Orthodox-related photography has its own international website, where you can see many beautiful images of moments captured within churches, some of them under free or creative commons copyright.

Actually, this prohibition is not a consistent policy and is not even a canonical doctrine. In some places, you can take pictures in exchange for a fee/donation. In others, you’ll be allowed to do so if your project is first reviewed and approved. The rule is usually relaxed for weddings and christenings. I myself have had the opportunity to take pictures inside churches, both in quiet hours and during mass. The picture above is taken in a small community church mass that I am glad I had the chance to capture. And try to convey the mysticism of the moment.

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