Harry, a UK based photographer knows a thing or two about leaving religion. He has dealt with it in his personal life and now he documents others who have had his same struggle. In this project we learn about the loss and regaining of community and the changing religious landscape in America.
You are English and based in the UK. Did you experience major culture shock when visiting Tennessee and the "Bible Belt" of America?
I suppose I’m quite used to America having been exposed through the media so there wasn’t such a culture shock. Really, just the small things like table manners and other mannerisms that differ from the British.
The cities feel different to here as there’s a lot more space and everything is further apart. I think what really shocked me about Tennessee (though it probably shouldn’t have) was the number and size of the churches. So many of them were lavishly built.
How long did you visit Tennessee? Did you hear a lot of country music?
My trip was just a month, and sadly I skipped on the country music. I was pretty work focused during my time there! I stupidly passed up an opportunity to go honky tonk-ing with a local one evening.
Did you grow up in a religious household?
I did grow up in a religious household but I left the faith during my teens. My experience of the church was mixed. Growing up I enjoyed the intense feeling of community which accompanies being a part of any tightly knit group, but couldn’t square my tendency toward a liberal morality with the very conservative attitude of my church.
Leaving my religion was scary. I was racked with fear that I would suffer eternally for doubting. That experience is what inspired me to shoot my project ‘Apostate’, which eventually led to the project, ‘Beyond What is Written’.
Without getting in too deep, what is your religion now? What do you believe in?
I don’t subscribe to any religion. Instead, I hope to spend my life doubting and re-evaluating all of my beliefs. I suppose an attitude of rationality is my founding principle now. That being said, there’s clearly something at the heart of what would be called a ‘religious experience’ which interests me.
I have found that profound or ’spiritual' experiences can be reliably had through meditation, which is typically provided in a buddhist context. I think despite my lack of belief in any particular religion, I find a similar beauty and spiritual experience elsewhere, in art, literature or in science. Kinda hard not to answer that question without getting too ‘deep’, apologies!
Are there any fun stories behind the people in this series?
Honestly, not really, most are pretty sad. It’s rough leaving your religion at the best of times, and these guys are going very much against the grain by being irreligious.
Were you treated with hospitality in the south? Did you visit any other places in the USA?
Absolutely! Everyone I met was overwhelmingly hospitable. I think it’s definitely a quirk of the South. I was incredibly lucky to be hosted for a month by a lovely couple, Gayle and Elliot, who are pretty instrumental in organizing parts of the non-religious community. Gayle, director of an American charity named ‘Recovering from Religion’, was the starting point for the project.
What words did you find funny that Americans used in Tennessee?
I can’t think of any right now, but I think the southern accent is great. They found it real funny that I said ‘cheers’ to everything.
I love how you captured the buildings in this series too - the home, the churches.....what was your secret to capturing the essence of this environment?
The idea with the landscapes is to sort of paint a picture of the religious environment, as a backdrop to the secular communities and the lives led in them. It’s nice that you think I’ve managed to capture the essence of each place. I walked and photographed a lot whilst I was out there, so had a lot of pictures from which to choose. I think I shot like 3 rolls of just suburban houses and only included 1 in the final edit.
Overall, do you like America?
That’s a big question. It definitely interests me more now than it used to, and I feel like I’m not done working there. Politically, it’s crazy at the moment, which obviously leaves it wide open to make work in and about. I’m trying to snag a residency in New York at the moment, so we’ll see how that goes.
Images courtesy of HARRY FLOOK
interview ASHLEY MUNNS
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