Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009
By Katie Scarvey
Photographer Sean Meyers grew up going to a Pentecostal church and hearing his grandfather preach fire and brimstone. He remembers listening in fascination while people spoke in tongues.
Meyers himself ó even as a child ó never aspired to express himself through ecstatic speech. He prefers to communicate with images, which is how he makes his living. But his youthful exposure to intense religious emotion left its mark on him. Certainly his early experience helped him to feel comfortable in churches, he says.
He believes his Pentecostal childhood, at some level, prompted his recent project: photographing the faith experience, in all its diversity and richness.
“The Faith Experience,” a series of 32 photographs by Meyers, opens at Waterworks Visual Arts Center with a reception from 6-8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15. The event is free and open to the public.
Meyers ó who does not have a religious affiliation ó enjoyed capturing a wide variety of religious experience through his photographs, both color and black and white.
For the better part of a year, he immersed himself in religion, attending a wide variety of worship centers, from Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish and Hindu ó as well as a broad spectrum of Protestant Christian churches, from AME Zion to Moravian to Unitarian Universalist. He attended regular Sunday services, baptisms, revivals, a footwashing service, an Easter Stations of the Cross service, a Bar Mitzvah, and a Moravian love feast.
(“I kept calling it a love festival,” Meyers said, “which they giggled at.”)
And yes, he did go to a Pentecostal service ó Lifeline Pentecostal Church in Salisbury.
He brought a non-judgmental approach and says he was surprised to find that most religions have basically the same goal ó “to achieve some kind of higher good.”
As a photographer, he prefers to keep himself in the background.
“I love being a fly on the wall,” he says. “I would rather not have anyone know I was there.”
Partly for that reason, he chose to use only available light for his faith series.
In some situations, he was more restricted than he would have liked, being confined to a particular area and unable to move around. That didn’t deter him: “I can make a photo from anywhere,” he says.
Although Meyers generally feels comfortable in worship settings, he found himself more engaged by some services than others. He enjoyed the “Bathing of the Buddha” ceremony at the True Buddhist Society temple in Charlotte. The service involved chanting, singing and the ritual of pouring water on an image of Buddha, symbolic of sins being washed away, Meyers says.
He also discovered that the egalitarianism of the Sikh religion appealed to him.
“I like that the men and women are treated equally,” he says. He also felt very at ease with a service of the Huntersville B’hai Community.
For the exhibit, Meyers focused on local photographs, adding that he did not apply his usual strict photojournalistic approach to the selection, choosing some images that he considers more “generic” because he believes viewers will have a strong response to them.
Meyers was shooting on and off for about eight months, spending most of his weekends in churches from Charlotte to Greensboro to Winston-Salem and in between.
One memorable experience was with a North Carolina Piedmont Church of Wicca event called the Beltane, which is based on an ancient Gaelic holiday. Wiccans and Wiccan-inspired Neopagans celebrate Beltane. The event was at a campground, and while he shot a midnight ceremony, he was also intrigued that one of the cabins had been set aside for the celebrants to have sex. Outside was a light ó flashing either red, yellow, or green ó to let people know whether the cabin was open or occupied.
After he was finished shooting, he tried to leave but discovered that the gate had been locked.
Trapped with the Wiccans.
“I didn’t mind,” he says. Always flexible, Meyers slept in his Volvo station wagon.
One of his favorite photos was taken at the United Church of Christ in Salisbury.
His selection of this particular image might be surprising, since there’s nothing exotic about it ó it depicts the sort of interaction that occurs thousands of times a week in Rowan County. But for Meyers, that does not diminish the power and emotion captured by the photo, which shows a pastor greeting a parishioner at the door after the Sunday morning service.
“I love this moment,” Meyers says.
The pastor is listening intently to a woman, who looks happy and relaxed.
“He’s offering something to her,” Meyers says.
He’s also fond of an image of a woman’s feet as she plays the organ. The unique angle presents a view that most people never see, he says.
He also likes a photograph taken at the Greensboro Islamic Center of a sea of men performing the ritual of prostration to Allah.
His current project is an extension of a long-held interest in capturing images of religious experience. When Meyers lived in Texas, he did a year-long project documenting African-American worship services.
A freelance photographer for the past nine years, Meyers worked before that as a full-time newspaper photographer in Florida, Ohio and Missouri.
His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. His photos have appeared in Reader’s Digest more than 100 times.
Meyers lives in Salisbury and is married to Dr. Elizabeth Homan, a Catawba College theatre arts professor.
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or email@example.com.