Reflective Moments

Photographer Jeff LeFever tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite pictures from Jerusalem.

By / May 2012

From behind my camera, my eyes brush along with this cavernous canvas, stopping at the intersection of arches and dome to play with architectural curves and illustrate theological concepts.

Slowly people enter. A woman with a scarf prays. A man kisses the feet of the crucified Christ. Another woman with a scarf. Another man kissing a glass case of icons. After several minutes, a young priest comes out and faces the templon. He is flanked on each side by beautiful stargazer lilies, and a crowd of about 65 people forms behind him.

Soon he speaks, one Russian voice filling the silence, then bouncing back and forth in rhythm with many voices.

Eventually I change positions, sneaking behind the crowd with my head bowed, like a child past his parent’s bedroom. As much as I try to put myself into the service, the equipment in my hand sets my mind down alternative paths, like when I take two shots from the back of the crowd, one vertical, one horizontal, because I am caught in a confluence — the saints of the past above joining the saints of the present below. The timing of it all amazes me.

Jeff LeFever, 54, has published three books of photography. The most recent is "Corpus Christi."

I have been traveling internationally since 2006 to experience and document the consecrated spaces of Christendom. On this particular day, my intention was not to document a mass, in fact, I usually oppose showing up and photographing a mass or any liturgical event unless invited. I visit these spaces primarily to see how the use of visual art expresses theology and how it interacts with the architecture to aid in identity and reverence.

My time at the Holy Trinity Cathedral came as part of a 30-day trip to Jerusalem in 2009 and was published as a book in 2011. I waited three days to get permission to take photos there. After an hour and a half, I left with 64 keepers. I have done this enough now that I look until I find something that will add to my archive of more than 300 churches, rather than take hundreds of shots, most of which I will not use.

It grieved me when I noticed a few tourists snapping photos with the flash on inside Holy Trinity. I saw them watching me earlier; no doubt they saw some guy with a bunch of gear taking pictures and assumed it was OK to do the same.

These are holy places. As I am often told, “This is not a place to take pictures, this is a place for worship and prayer.” My presence with professional equipment is not meant to degrade or desecrate. If anything, I have a deep appreciation.

The sacred ideas portrayed in churches around the world engage imaginations and offer reflective moments. My desire is to craft images that carry a similar sense of purpose, creativity and sentiment. I look for angles and perspectives that resonate with my soul. I don’t take the standard down-the-nave shot or show all the same elements from different churches for the sake of comparison.

Prior to this project, I found myself detached from my camera equipment. I had little direction, little purpose. My movements with photography were knee-jerk. I took pictures of anything that looked nice. But I was not saying anything.

Now I am more purposed. I have a story to tell, and as I continue to visit church after church to give voice to beauty and sacredness, I am overwhelmed by the visual vocabulary, which often sings louder than my ears can take.


— as told to Brandon Hoops