Ralph Watkins, a theologian and photographer at Columbia Theological Seminary, noted recently in a conversation on the arts and activism that photographers are both creators and curators, artists who capture what might otherwise be unseen and then design visual experiences intended to move people. Two collections by Jesuit photographers from different eras and contexts reflect Watkins’s wisdom about the social and moral power of the photographer.
The first, Frank Browne: A Life Through the Lens, is a compilation of more than 220 of some 42,000 photographs taken by the Irish Jesuit Frank Browne (1880-1960) over the course of his lifetime, organized chronologically from 1909 to 1954. A thoughtful foreword by Colin Ford provides the context of Browne’s social, ecclesiastical and artistic milieu, and short biographical pieces by E. E. O’Connell, S.J., and David H. Davison offer a sense of Browne the Jesuit and photojournalist respectively, foregrounding the artist in his art.
Browne received his first camera from an uncle, who happened to be a bishop (and whose wake is among the haunting images of Catholic devotional life) at age 17, before he entered the Jesuit novitiate but in time for what would be his first of many European tours. Aside from two years in formation, Browne kept his camera at the ready, clearly entering more fully into life unfolding around him by bringing what he saw—people and land and seascapes—into focus in carefully composed black and white images. As striking as the variety of his locations—Egypt, the decks of the RMS Titanic on her short trip from Cherbourg to Cobh (formerly Queenstown) before her fatal Atlantic crossing, the French front lines in World War I, the streets of Ireland’s big cities and the countryside of New South Wales, Australia—is the variety of his human subjects. The book teems with images of people of all ages, some at play by the seaside or on the cricket pitch, others at work—tradesmen, farmers, herders and weavers. Images of the ordinariness of vocational life—Jesuits playing cards or ice-skating, for example—underscore the beauty of the everyday.
The collection also features stunning contrasts, and not simply within the compositions themselves. Browne’s images capture intimately personal interactions in the midst of streets so busy that all but the subjects are a blur, or the precariousness of life in the country etched in the unapologetic gaze of toddlers and their grandmothers. Here too we see the collision of Ireland’s agrarian past with its mechanized future captured in sail boats juxtaposed with steamers, wagons with trolleys. I was particularly struck by Browne’s self portraits—one a lovely image in a stand of trees (“Self Portrait reading the National Geographic” 1925)—and the other taken much later but foreshadowing today’s ubiquitous “selfie” using the mirror in front of his barber chair during a trim (“Self at Maison Prost Hairdressers” 1940).
Don Doll, S.J., is both the creator and curator behind the second collection, A Call to Vision: A Jesuit’s Perspective on the World. The book features award-winning images from 50 years of his ministry among various Native American tribes, intimate moments in his own family and the work of Jesuit social ministries around the world. Like Browne, Doll came to photography by invitation, in his case from a fellow priest at the St. Francis Indian Mission on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, where he taught in the early years of his Jesuit life in the 1960s.
Appropriately, Creighton University Press published the collection. Doll has been a faculty member in the department of fine and performing arts there for 45 years. An introduction by Donald Winslow, editor of the National Press Photographers Association’s magazine, explains how an early business card, which read “Priest. Professor. Photographer.” set Doll apart from so many others who share his craft. Doll himself offers poignant reflections at the outset of each section of the book, situating the images within what he calls his “vocation within a vocation”: “The Call,” “In the Beginning,” “Crying for a Vision,” “Vision Quest,” “Go in Peace,” “A Day in the Life Of…,” “The Jesuit Mission,” “Jesuit Refugee Service” and “Reflection.”
It’s easy to get lost in the 11-image story of the Yupik Eskimos commissioned by National Geographic in 1984, and another black and white series featuring the Athapascans on the Yukon River in the late ‘80s. Stunning full-color portraits of young people of the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota simply captivate. Particularly intimate are photographs Doll took of the stages of his mother’s death—from her doctor’s office for the initial cancer diagnosis to her gravesite, with his father in the frame in just about all of them—interspersed with images of a separate but simultaneously unfolding event—the stages of labor and birth of the second child of two dear friends.
Although seemingly disparate, the invitation to “come and see” is a thread that runs through both collections. In addition to mesmerizing images that tell stories that you could hear again and again, Browne and Doll provide the visual tools for creating the culture of encounter to which Pope Francis continually invites all people of good will. Their images imply a method of encounter: Be attentive to your surroundings and the people there; draw close to them by asking questions and listening; make space for those closest in pain or joy to articulate it (using words if necessary); and give a privileged place to the self-image a person or a people have of themselves, rather than that which the world projects onto them.
Whether experienced independently or engaged as a pair, these books reveal the way photographers help us look at the signs of the times and not simply read them. The latter can often be done from a safe emotional distance, while the former unavoidably creates an intimacy with the potential for empathy that, if properly fanned, can grow into the vocational fire of social responsibility. How, for example, do we begin to recognize in our own ancestral histories not only the pain but also the resolute hope of today’s diasporas, be they indigenous or refugee?
There is tangible evidence of vocation here, of two men who accepted an invitation to explore an art form, which in the end, as they created and curated, freed them to experience more fully the joys and sorrows of the people they photographed.