Christopher Churchill (b. 1977) is a documentary photographer working in large-format on narrative projects and commissions. His work has been shown internationally and within the United States, often in surveys of American culture. His photographs are held in various private and public collections, including The Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The High Museum of Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian. He has worked on commissions with such clients as Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, GQ, Travel & Leisure, Vogue, Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal Magazine. His first monograph, American Faith, was published in 2012 by Nazraeli Press and The Joy of Giving Something. Today we share that work.
At the time of my first trip along the east coast in 2004, the Unites States had been divided into what was being described as “Two Americas”. Still grappling with the events of September 11th and its impact on American life, there was an intolerance that you could physically feel while traveling through the country. Caught in the middle of this cultural tension was faith. Faith in Gods, faith in religions, faith in war, faith in capitalism, faith in democracy and faith in America. 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.
I realized I would need to work within some structure to remain objective, and to not be absorbed into the dogma that was so prevalent during the start of this project. My first rule would be to not plan anything. Each trip would focus on a particular region, but none would include arranged stops. This project was never meant to be an academic study, but instead a simple record of one person’s experiences while searching for faith. Secondly, I would make audio recordings and transcribe them to create the content for the book. This would also help maintain objectivity and allow for the most direct accounts of faith to be heard. Thirdly, I would travel with faith – not the religious kind of faith, but a belief that this random sampling would somehow make sense in the end. This last part would prove to the most formative for me personally, and ultimately would push the images to a much deeper place. As I began to better understand what it meant to have faith, and how truly universal that word is, the work became oddly accessible and inclusive. I found myself having amazingly profound experiences both in the isolation of working alone while traveling, as well as with the strangers I encountered along the way.
At the beginning of any given trip I would leave with such momentum, such excitement, almost in a manic state, obsessively looking. But days would go by and I would not have exposed a single sheet of film. After traveling away from my regular life and waking up in horrible hotels, I would begin to fill with self-doubt, in complete despair and suspicious of what I was doing. And only then, when I was stripped of all energy and unable to look anymore, would I begin to see. It happened this way repeatedly and without fail. After several trips I stopped trying all together, still carrying excitement and momentum but channeling that into a faith that things would progress, that images would be made and that encounters would occur. By getting out of my own way and focusing my energy on the faith of my travels, I was able to be completely present.
After traveling with nothing but faith and the kindness of others to guide me, I felt connected to the world in a way I would never have found on my own. Time seemed less linear, space more specific, strangers less strange. I was more aware of amazing and beautiful things that we alone could never create, more sensitive to our place in a larger sequence of events. I came to understand that this is the essence of faith, not a faith in religion but a faith in something greater than ourselves that helps us to fully realize the context of what it means to be human, and to accept our differences through an understanding of our commonality.
While I would like these images and transcriptions to serve as evidence of my journey, there is one event for which I did not have camera or a tape recorder. It was September 11th 2008. I was in my studio when the phone rang. I let it go. I was working on sequenc- ing this book and did not want to be bothered. It rang again and again. I picked up. The shaking voice on the other end was my dad’s wife. I had been waiting for this call for years and had spent years trying to make my relationship with my dad right. In fact, the last time we had seen each other, just two days before, I remember thinking it was no way to say goodbye. I wanted to get straight to the point instead of listening to Lou figure out how to tell me whatever it was that was making her cry. “Is he alive?” “No, Chris, he isn’t.”
My sister said he had been acting like a little kid when he woke up that morning. Later in the afternoon and he had gone down to the harbor, paddled out to the mooring, lifted the sail and set off. It was the last time his feet would touch solid ground. The last three hours of his life were spent gliding across the most perfect blue water on a perfect September day in Maine. It was the bay he grew up sailing on with his parents. It was his authenticity, his love, his place to be most present in the world. He would always say to me, “See over there, if you keep going in that direction you’ll be in Portugal,” and then we would make our way to one of many islands knowing that, if we wanted, Portugal was waiting. My greatest memories of him were on that water and in that harbor. I met my wife in that harbor – we had our first date on one side and our first kiss on the other. I went to school at the top of the hill above it, and my father-in-law’s work was next door. Most importantly, though, I had some of the best talks with my dad just sitting and watching seals or stars, check- ing out other wooden boats and listening to him swirl the ice in his rum. When his dad had passed away, we spent the day sanding the topside of the boat. He taught me about a soul and what he thought happens after you die. It was one of those special times when as a son you get to also be a friend.
Throughout the past seven years of working on this project my faith was never truly brought into question. Everywhere I went people would say, “Someday you will be tested and you will have to ask yourself what you believe in.” Like my Dad’s sailing one last time, maybe this project and all I have been through working on this book was all meant to be. Maybe we are all part of a larger sequence in the world, whether we acknowledge it or not.
I had spent years trying to be at peace with my beliefs without ever being tested and when my dad passed away, the time arrived. I was humbled to the point of not being able to be anything to anybody. It was a ball of pain, a biological sadness so big it made my lungs hurt. But in some way I felt okay. It wasn’t that I thought that I would see him again in some afterlife – though I would never dismiss this idea. What I’d come to was a feeling of faith that time was larger than my wildest imagination and that we existed together in a way that would be a part my daughter’s life and other generations to come. I had faith that every other human on the planet would someday have that same pain and because of this, I was a part of something larger in the world. It was that faith that brought me peace.
To view more of Chris’s work, please visit his website.