Theology of Photography

Theology of Photography:

What’s the Point of Taking Pictures?

Pastor holding a crystal ball
My good friend and pastor: Rev. Dr. Don Wagner. I discerned my Theology of Photography from much of his instruction.

Without getting into all of my ancient history, it is sufficient to say that theology and faith are very important to me. Something that held me back for many years was an idea of theological call. I could not find God in being a photographer. As I meditated on it, I  discerned that God is very much a part of photography. And so I present: a Theology of Photography.

Photographers are prone to existential crises about the point of making images. Does a photograph capture some essential truth about the world, or is it just another way to manipulate reality? Is photography a neutral documenter of the real world, or an expressive and deliberate medium? The recent emergence of the “Instagram generation” hinders, rather than helps. Many photographers today seem to only take pictures for their personal aesthetic value and neglect—or simply don’t care—about what they actually say about the world.

Why do photos matter?

Before we think about the theological significance of photography, we first have to answer the question: why do photographs matter in the first place? If a photograph is just another kind of image, then what is so special about it?

The answer lies in the medium of photography. For all the visual arts, photography alone is unique in being a mechanical process of image-making. Unlike painting or sculpture, which are manual artistic processes that create new images, the camera is a device that mechanically replicates the real world. This is what makes photography such a powerful medium. Unlike any other visual art, photography has the potential to capture and preserve real events in time and space. This documentary potential is what makes photos so special and valuable. A photograph replicates an event or scene in such a way that anyone with access to the image itself re-experiences that moment or scene.

Theology of the Image: What does it mean to be made in the image of God?

When we talk about the importance of the image of God, we talk about the significance of human beings. We remember that we as humans are created in His likeness. (Gen 1:27)

After all, the image of God is not a physical image like a “selfie”, but rather a spiritual reflection of God’s nature. The image of God is not, then, a physical selfie, but a spiritual reflection of God’s nature. This means that the significance of human beings is not tied to our physical being, but to our spiritual significance.

So how, then, do we understand the theological significance of images? What, if anything, do images say about God? The Bible offers us a number of clues.

Firstly, we notice that the scriptures make a clear distinction between idols, which are images of false gods, and images of the true God. This distinction, however, does not lie in the medium of the image per se, but to the intentions and context of the image. Images of false gods are idols because they are used in the wrong context. Images that are used to glorify God are not idols, but images. This tells us that imagery can have a theological significance, but this significance derives from their use and context. When used as a vehicle for worship, images reveal something about the nature of God himself. When used for idolatry, however, images become vehicles for false and destructive theology.

Discovering our purpose through making images

The theological significance of images, of course, is not limited to their use in worship and art. Photography, in particular, is an excellent medium for exploring theology, because it has the potential to record real events as images. This means that each image becomes a reflection of reality, as well as a vehicle for theological reflection. This is why photographers should be concerned with what their images “say”, beyond their aesthetic value. This is not to say that aesthetics are unimportant, but rather that aesthetics are not the end goal of photography. Photography is not just a craft or an aesthetic pursuit, but a medium for theological exploration. This means that every time a photographer takes a picture, they participate in a theological exploration. Every image a photographer takes is an opportunity for theological reflection, a chance for the photographer to discover something new about the meaning of reality.

Theological Reasoning and Artistic Creation

Even though images have the potential for theological significance, this does not mean that photographs are always “true” or “real”. After all, photography is a mechanical process of replicating reality, not a magical process of creating reality out of nothing. This means that photographers must be careful not to confuse how they create images (which is mechanically) with the images themselves (which are representations of the real world).

The fact that photography is a mechanical process of image-making raises some interesting questions in light of the image of God. Most obviously, if God created us in His image, then does this mean that we, too, can mechanically replicate reality? If so, does this make photography a divine activity? And what about other mechanical processes like filmmaking and animation? If these activities are also divine in nature, how do we distinguish between their divine and human origins?

These are all fascinating questions, but they also reveal the difficult position that photography finds itself in. Photography’s mechanical nature suggests that it cannot be divine, but it also is not reduced to a human activity. Photography is a divine-human activity, an image-making that reveals the divine creative nature of reality and the human creative capacity to image this reality.

Bottom Line

Our discussion here reveals that photography has the potential to be a powerful medium for theological exploration. This means that photographers have a significant responsibility to use their craft as a means of theological discovery. This does not mean that all photographers have to be “artsy” or “intellectual”, but that they have to be deliberate and intentional about the images we make. Additionally, photographers have to be mindful of the context and intention of their images and mindful of the theological significance of their craft.

You can read another attempt I’ve made at this topic by reading My Manifesto.

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