The many shapes and forms of faith

A photographer spends 30 years documenting the beauty of religious expression worldwide

Kazuyochi Nomachi's photographic journey of 30 years, compiled in a vibrant new book, A Photographer's Pilgrimage - 30 Years of Great Reportage (White Star Publishers, $39.95), pries open the window on the world's religions. Nomachi shows us the wonders of faith worldwide and provides a context in which to understand the way spiritual traditions shape lives across the globe.

The photographer's journey began in 1975 in the Sahara desert. It was here that he began to discover the power of documentary photography. The photographs from the desert show less of an intimate portrait of the people than they do of the harsh beauty of the landscape. But soon we are admitted into the world of the people of the high Atlas Mountains of Morocco - an old woman's weather-beaten face calmly confronts the camera, a shaft of light highlights a farm wife in her kitchen, and brides are bedecked in finery as they head to a mass wedding.

Each chapter of the book opens with an anecdote from the lands Nomachi has traversed. The passages - part travelogue, part philosophical meditation - give insight into the mind-set of the photographer as he explored each land and add depth to the overall work. Nomachi readily shares his awe at the stamina of Tibetan pilgrims, his reverence for life as he witnessed deaths of the starving in Ethiopia, his anger at government policies leading to war and loss of traditional culture in Sudan.

The long path of Nomachi's spiritual and photographic journey ultimately led to his conversion to Islam to gain access to Mecca and Medina, the faith's most holy sites. The photographs are impressive as we are allowed to witness the throngs circling the Kaaba in Mecca and share in the daily life of pilgrims who have made the hajj from around the globe.

"In my more than 30 years as a photographer, one scene above all other has left its indelible impression on my brain: that of a million people worshipping throughout the night of Laylat al-Qadr ... this scene I was witnessing represented a climax of mankind's spiritual journey," he writes.

During a visit to Bhutan in 2003, the beauty of the landscape and the harmony in which people lived struck Nomachi. It led him to ask himself two questions. "Does the relentlessly competitive society now prevalent throughout the world, with it law of the jungle and its exclusive monotheisms, have a future? Will we ever, for the sake of our survival, acquire the wisdom to acknowledge diversity, to recognize there are different ways of seeing the world?"

Nomachi's beautifully photographed and designed 505-page book places the world's religions in their deeply personal context. Most important he helps provide added depth of understanding to the diversity of faith at a time when religious extremism dominates the headlines. In this way he helps send viewers on their own spiritual journey.

Andy Nelson is a staff photographer.

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