By Daniel Epstein
I was – we were (as several folks in the office crowded ‘round) – completely blown away. By its power and dignity, its implicit compassion and yet unblinking eye. What a wonderful project.
– Ken Burns, Emmy Award winning documentary film-maker
For the past ten years, I’ve travelled the world for business and for faith. Faced with problems in relationships, work, and “life,” I needed to find faith in a God – or I would die. The path to healing was an unexpected one. Until last year, I was a marketing director for Procter & Gamble, one of the largest corporations in the world. My role had me travelling extensively, and I started to add on days to my business travel to interview people about how faith had changed their lives. I figured that if I could just hear people speak about their own healing journeys, their own doubts and realizations, I could heal too, drafting off of their experiences.Tom Boechat
For each person I interviewed, I would make a black and white portrait, not a glamour shot or a religious image – just an image that evoked their true spirit.
What started as a path to my own healing and a way to occupy time in an otherwise depressed state, became a journey of my own transformation. Growing up Jewish in Atlanta, Georgia, I was deeply immersed from childhood in honoring religious and spiritual journeys from all walks of life. So this would be a project that embraced anyone and everyone who felt moved by their understanding of God and faith.
What started as a project in a summer photography workshop is now 450 people in 27 countries. The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns advised me to “have the courage to say this isn’t a film.” And, so, in May, 2013, Portraits In Faith was launched only as a website with 13 portraits. Every week since then we try to publish one additional person’s portrait and interview. The video interviews are all on the PIF website.
On the Same Spiritual Journey
I hope that people can see from Portraits In Faith that we are all on the same spiritual journey; that the journey of one is the journey of the other. Someone asked me if I only wanted to interview and make portraits of attractive people, since everyone in the project was beautiful. I chuckled – I would never have such criteria. But I smiled as well realizing that if everyone was beautiful in the project, it’s because everyone is beautiful!
My friend Rabbi Leah Cohen shared a story from the Hebrew Bible about Jacob and Esau reuniting 20 years after Jacob’s deception, stealing Esau’s blessing from Isaac their father. Jacob drops to his knees in front of Esau and says, “To see your face is to see the face of God.” Rabbi Cohen made two points. First, it is compelling that we see God’s face in the face of another person. Second, we see God most especially in the face of the other, the one most different from us, possibly our enemy.
There have been so many highlights in this journey. So many moments have taught me that we are all worthy, we are all loved, we are all more than enough, and that we all have the responsibility to share and give back. Some of my dearest memories of this journey come from these five.
• Tom Boechat, an atheist who was also my first producer, was one of the most spiritually inspiring interviews for me. Tom said,
“Instead of God creating us, I think we created God. And that’s OK, I don’t have a problem with that because I think it’s just a concept. And, for me, faith is not believing that having things is the most important thing. I don’t mean to make a vote for poverty. It’s not that. I want to have things. I just don’t want things to have me”.
From Tom Boechat I learned that atheists and agnostics have as much to teach us about faith as anyone.
• Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal, may his memory be a blessing, invited me into his home to interview him. During the middle of the interview, he got an emergency phone call from Israel that his son had been hospitalized. He said he would have to stop the interview because he needed to pray. I had flown out to Boulder, Colorado just for the interview and was taken aback – what did he mean he needed to pray? It quickly became obvious that what I was in the presence of a very real and practical faith. From Reb Zalman I learned that faith must always be practical and that there may be nothing more practical than faith.
• Imam Mohamad Lutfi Syahwan was a 30-year-old imam in Pekan, Malaysia when I met him. He was excited to show me where he stood on Fridays to give his sermon in the mosque and that, on Fridays, even the Sultan had to listen to him! But what I learned most of all was the commonality of the human experience. Mohamad searched for a job for two years following his studies and was deeply discouraged, but continued to pray.
“When I saw the letter I said, ‘Insha’Allah, I will get this job.’ This was only an interview letter, but I thought, ‘I will get this job!’ And in the interview, he said, ‘I want you now. I want you to be imam of this Mosque.’ I felt very happy. In my two years, Allah has heard my voice, my prayers.”
From Imam Syahwan I learned that faith is trusting in the universe to use us exactly where we are needed.
• Uncle Bob Randall is from Australia and, sadly, is a member of the “Stolen Generation.” At seven years old, he was taken from his mother and sent to a mission a thousand miles away. Only as an adult did he return to Uluru, but he never saw his mother again. From Uncle Bob I learned that God meets us in so many forms. For Aboriginal peoples, that is especially true with Mother Earth.
“Sometimes when we were beaten…we’d just lie on the earth and say “I’ve had it, I need you to hold me. And then she would. The Mother would hold you.”
From Uncle Bob Randall I learned to honor the earth and the universe as the divine.
• Anna Halprin is considered the mother of post-modern dance. We met when I took her movement workshop held annually at Esalen on the California coast. She was 88. Two years later, I went to her home in Marin County, California to hear the story of her journey from being a young girl meeting her Chasidic grandfather every Saturday at synagogue to being an icon of dance and movement. She was inspired by her grandfather who she imagined was God! “Then I thought to myself: this is a blessed moment because I am holding God’s hand and we are dancing together!” From Anna Halprin I learned that movement and dance are profound forms of worship.
This journey has been healing for me. Today I believe in a Higher Power whose name and definition changes often. Today I believe because I choose to believe. I choose to believe because a life with faith – broadly defined and not exclusive to any religion – is a wonderful life. Faith to me today means that there is a greater consciousness and reality beyond what my mind can think of, beyond my own actions. Faith means I am inextricably connected to every living and non-living thing in the universe. My latest understanding of God is "the Great Connectedness.” But I’ve also met Jesus in a dream (explain that to your Jewish parents!), and I've found great peace in everything from Hare Krishna kirtan to Friday prayers in a mosque in Dubai.
Portraits In Faith continues to gather thousands of people around the world who are finding healing in the videotaped interviews and portraits that have healed me. We just hit 30,000 views on YouTube and have over a thousand people who have subscribed to our "Portrait of the Week" series. I am blessed to have a team of professionals in Toronto, New York, London, and Manila who help us produce the project weekly.
Portraits In Faith has been a worldwide journey to uncover stories of faith and to come face to face with all these different facets of myself. I will forever be grateful to God that I have been sent on this errand. And as I love to say, “God is good, no matter what you call her!"