Photography has always been a large part of my adult life. This is just a nice way of saying that it has taken over my life, in the best way possible. It is the way in which I view the world and more importantly, tell the stories within it. I remember sitting on my phone a few years ago, scrolling through the movies coming out that weekend. One in particular caught my eye: The Salt of the Earth. It had a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and even though I knew nothing about it, I was extremely interested. So often, our lives are chronicled by those moments where our hearts are lit on fire, and this was certainly one of those moments. The Salt of the Earth follows the well-known social justice photographer Sebastião Salgado as he embarks on his final photography project: Genesis. For over 20 years, Salgado has traveled the Earth, documenting the most horrifying human tragedies and human rights issues along the way. He became depressed after all that he witnessed, so his last project aimed to rediscover the inherent beauty in the world. After being inspired by his work and the documentary, I realized that I could not separate my creativity and my faith, which, in tangent, guide my vocation.
About a year and a half ago, this passion became my practice. I went to a Jesuit school and was very involved in Campus Ministry, where I was exposed to a number of the Jesuits who lived on campus. Throughout my four years, I came to realize that there is a deep disconnect between how society views priests and who they really are. Following in the footsteps of Salgado, this prompted me to create my own photography project — Emmaus: The Nature of the Way — which documents the lives of 22 Jesuit Priests living at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Through personal stories of life experiences combined with photographs that exhibit these men's passions, this project brings back their humanity, which is all too often lost. The project has been picked up by a publisher, and we will be releasing this coffee table photography book in April 2017. You can check out the book at www.natureoftheway.org.
Before I began working at the John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I was hesitant that I would not be able to bring all of myself — my passions, interests, and creativity — to the job. Luckily, my site supervisor, Fr. Pat, and the team here fully embraced this notion of looking at ministry and social justice through a different lens... literally. Over this past semester, I created five, separate, hour-long guided reflections on social justice issues, rooted in the work of photographers throughout history, titled: Through the Lens: Social Justice and Photography. I began the series with looking at racism through photographer Edward Curtis' work known as The North American Indian. Along with recognizing the inherent biases that all of us possess, we began to question reality itself, struggling with the question, "Can a photograph tell the truth?" Throughout the next few months, the students and I came to realize that pulling the trigger of a camera is sometimes more deadly and often times way more powerful than pulling the trigger of a gun, that we cannot judge photographers because we will never see the "full truth," and that photographs must always be taken with a grain of salt.
Oftentimes in society, and especially in places like Campus Ministry, the exposure we have to social justice issues can make us numb to their harsh realities. The opportunity to look at these same issues that have been discussed many times in a new and refreshing way has reignited the fire and passion of students to become more knowledgeable and engaged. Bringing this series to the Newman Center has also encouraged the students to explore issues in the Chicago area creatively. The Good Shepherd is a project I have started with the students to explore "Renew My Church," — an Archdiocese of Chicago initiative to reevaluate resources and inevitably close a number of parishes and ministries — through photography. We will go and experience a daily mass, meet with the pastor and take photographs of him within his parish. These programs have had a great deal of traction within the community as it gives the students a personal relatability to those things going on within their communities.
It is truly a blessing that my work site is supportive of "unconventional" forms of viewing and relating to issues going on in this community. Being able to bring my passion for photography has given me great life within my work site, making me truly want to be there each and every day. I continually challenge students to find what they are passionate about and bring it to the table, because you never know where it may take you. Being able to work at a place where I get the much needed support, has transformed my experience of a year of service. I look forward to continuing my ministry into this next semester at the Newman Center, camera in hand.