We take millions of photographs every day. Most of us have a high-quality camera in our pockets, which doubles as a phone. Some of us take it really seriously and indulge in high-end and expensive equipment, but for most of us photography is just an extension of a glance – we look, we photograph and that's all there is to it.
But it doesn't have to be like that. Philip Richter is a photographer and Methodist minister, and he believes photography can be a spiritual exercise that draws us closer to God.
In his book Spirituality in Photography: Taking pictures with deeper vision, Richter combines practical advice about framing and focusing with encouragement to relate the image to a wider spiritual vision. The 11 chapters have headings including 'Sunrise', 'Perspective', 'Telling a story' and 'Truth telling'. He writes about how photography can be self-revelatory: 'For instance, if all your images are calm and fluffy and pretty, maybe this could be because you might be bracketing out your own inner turmoils, jagged edges, and incompleteness.' He reflects on perspective – in pictures and in our daily lives. And each chapter concludes with an activity challenge and questions to help note progress – and advice to camera phone users.
He spoke to Christian Today about how the pictures we take say something bout us – and to us. 'Photos help us remember the places, people, things and times that move us,' he says. 'It's also an opportunity to be creative, especially if we are not otherwise particularly artistic.'
In his own case, he came to see a link between his hobby of photography and his Christian life. 'I started to ask myself whether this was just a hobby or whether it was in some sense a gift from God and a way for people potentially to draw closer to God.
'I also discovered that Thomas Merton, the celebrated theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and Trappist monk, had discovered a passion for photography late in his life and had enthusiastically used the camera as a tool for his contemplation.'
One of the themes in his book is 'slow photography', where instead of snapping away at every conceivable moment we learn to take time and really see. 'Digital photography enables anyone to take loads of pictures. The temptation is to be "snap happy" and to hoover up a scene or event. Some of the resulting images may work well. Others will be disappointing - if we haven't taken time to reflect on what we want to photograph, what to include in the frame, what vantage point to take, and what we're trying to convey.
'Sometimes less is more, and it might be a good idea to limit yourself to taking, say, 24 or 36 images a day, as per the length of the old analogue 35mm films.'
It's a principle he's put into practice himself. 'My own photography has become more considered and slower,' he says. 'It's less about me rushing around trying to take every conceivable clever shot. It's more about me taking time to discover the image God may be inviting me to receive, and to see what/who God may be encouraging me to notice.
'It's less a set of techniques to master and more a sense of gratitude for the gift of sight and the ability to create photos that seem to lift others' minds and hearts, as well as my own. It's great that almost everyone now carries a camera with them on their phone and that this is potentially a readily available spiritual tool – if people are willing to allow their photography and spirituality to inspire each other.'
Spirituality in Photography is published by DLT, price £9.99. The companion site to the book includes a photography competition to win £50 worth of books (the competition closes on 31 August 2017).