Prayer images are powerful. They capture a person's most intimate moments with God and the Universe. I call this spiritual photography.
Even though prayer is private and personal, it is often enough performed in public at religious festivals such as Vesak (Buddhist) and Thaipusam (Hindu) in Singapore.
Yet I have not come across any photography books or exhibitions on the theme of prayer. I hope you enjoy these prayer photographs.
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As a child, I was fascinated by the sight of Hindu devotees their bodies pierced with hooks and needles carrying a large metal frame called a kavadi, in procession along the road. As an adult in 1981, I entered the Hindu temple for the first time, armed with my camera and ready to take my first prayer images, yet not quite knowing what to expect.This is a spectacular event that attracts all manner of photographers snap shooters to serious types with multiple camera bodies and lenses and afficianados with their Contax and Leica cameras / lenses. I prefer to “travel light” with just my Nikon 801 and, this year, a single zoom lens.
However, Thaipusam can be frightening for the uninitiated. Imagine looking at images of people close up through a 300mm telephoto lens having their cheeks and tongue pierced with skewers, their faces grimacing. Imagine focusing on their skin covered with fishing hooks that have lemons attached.
Not being a Hindu, it was hard for me to understand.
Quite quickly, however, I got accustomed to it and could see the holiness beneath it all. Thaipusam is about prayer, sacrifice and devotion. These are things I seek to capture and convey through my prayer images.
Some might consider Thaipusam more of an occasion for photojournalism. Obviously, the documentary element is strong. But with the strong and rich colors associated with the Indian culture, this becomes an excellent opportunity for the photographer to combine documentary photography and art.
More than that, Thaipusam is also a family affair and there will be many opportunities for child and baby photography as well. Many a proud parent, usually the mother, will be more than happy to pose her child for a portrait.
In fact, there will be many opportunities for outdoor portrait shots children portrait, beautiful, exotic Indian girls, old men with breads… These may be clichιd themes, but always a joy to photograph. Some of my best child portraits were taken at Thaipusam. It may be a religious festival, but certainly not just about prayer images.
The whole festival is so colorful and, for a non-Indian / non-Hindu, so exotic that Thaipusam feels to me like travel photography. I am practically in my own backyard, the particular Hindu temple where it takes place (along Serangoon Road in Singapore's Little India) being a mere 20 minutes' taxi ride from my home. Yet I feel as if I am in a totally different country.
Best of all, Thaipusam presents me with ample opportunities to focus on my other favourite photography subject hands. It may be an image of hands clapsed in prayer. Or the hands may be driving a skewer through a devotee's cheeks, or lighting a fire, or just holding a plate of offrerings... Whatever they are doing, hands can make dramatically expressive images.
This year (2005), I spotted and captured a man's hand with huge, shiny gold rings on every finger. I called that picture “Lord of the Rings” and it is among my more memorable Thaipusam photographs this year.I took some nice photographs of feet as well. They opened up a whole new world for me and I will certainly be looking for more feet photography possibilities from now on.
My first Thaipusam photography trip back in 1981 yielded some powerful prayer images that remain deeply etched in my mind. I was hooked. And that led me to also seek out similar prayer images at other religious festivals such as Vesak.
I always wanted to go back again to Thaipusam, but somehow never made it. I would miss the date (since it no longer is a public holiday in Singapore), or be busy, or just didn't have the energy to wake up early enough to go to the temple before the sun gets too high and harsh. How quickly more than 20 years passed.So it was not until last year, 2004, that I finally went back again. That second photo shoot was not entirely satisfactory although it did produce a couple of very powerful, very dramatic prayer images such as the image of a man's chest covered with hooks and lemons, and with a Catholic crucifix around his neck. To me, that comes close to being a “great photograph”.
Plus, I snapped probably my favourite child portraits during Thaipusam 2004.
The dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that I had used a budget 70-300mm zoom lens. It was one of those new, very affordable and supposedly good value plastic lenses. For just over S$200, it was superb value indeed, but I had this nagging feeling that the image quality could have been better.
This year (2005) I bought a new lens just two days before Thaipusam. I had been shopping for some used lenses and liked the old Nikkor 75 - 300 zoom.
It felt good (heavy but balanced) and had good reviews, except that the price was more than what I could afford. The shop wanted $450 for it, already down from the $520 listed price.
I was lucky. Shortly before Thaipusam, I found another piece of the same lens on the Internet going for $320. It was well kept and in beautiful condition. I bought in right away and subsequently managed to sell off my other zoom at a good price.
I also did some reseach on slides and decided that the best would be Fuji Provia 400 because of the long lens I was using and bacause some of the activity takes place in the shade. I had quite a few pictures with camera shake last year (using Kodak 200 negatives) and did not want to be disappointed again. I was prepared to push process the Provia to ISO 800 or higher if necessary, but that need did not arise. Instead, I even managed to take a roll of Provia 100, without any noticeable camera shake.
So happily, I set off again to the temple this year, in search of more prayer images. Still, there was a worry. Would I be taking more of the same pictures? Would I run out of ideas?
The first photograph I took was a bleah! The second was a try-out. I wasn't sure if it would turn out well, but snapped it just to “warm up”. It turned out much better than I expected. From the third photograph onwards, I was immersed and lost in this world of boundless prayer images and other photographic possibilities.
No, I did not run out of ideas. Instead, I found new inspiration. And yes I realised that the Nikkor lens is far superior to the budget third party plastic lens.
Most of all, I realised that prayer images continues to hold a fascination for me. I hope you enjoy this gallery. For more prayer images, look out for my Vesak and general Prayer Image Galleries that I will be putting up soon.
I certainly enjoyed presenting this gallery to you and, needless to say, I tremendously enjoyed taking the photographs. I hope the prayer images presented here will inspire you to explore the subject or spiritual photography further and deeper.