Long exposures hark back to the beginnings of photography, when film was slow and shutter-speeds long, and when there was a sense of mystery about what a photograph was capable of — perhaps it could capture one's soul, or even a hovering spirit.

Of course, contemporary knowledge would say this is impossible, that a photograph is nothing more than a mechanical process involving chemicals and light. Yet some portraits seem to have an ability to capture more than just a two dimensional representation of skin and bone. I realised this when, in the hills of Nepal in 2003, I made a series of portraits of Tibetan Lamas. On my return to London, a curator responded to one particular portrait, saying she could feel the energy of the Lama, as if she were in his presence.

The seeds of Observance began then, with a suspicion that a powerful image is capable of connecting people across time and space in a way that is visceral and real.

Religions have tapped into this possibility. Throughout history imagery has played an important role in many faiths. Often, followers of a faith possess an image of their leader, their guru, or their teacher. They have them in their homes, on their altars, or tattered in a wallet. In countries where certain forms of religion are not tolerated, such as Tibet, to possess such an image can put one's life at risk.

Why do people put such faith in the power of a photograph? What does this kind of image hold that is so precious?

Observance raises these questions, and explores how a sense of connection is created through the directness of contact that an image can provide, particularly with the sitter gazing out of the image. This has long been recognized in the religious art of icon painting, a practice which not only follows strict spiritual procedures but also visual parameters by always depicting the figures dominant in the frame, bringing them in direct relationship with the viewer.

This direct engagement is a central theme of Observance. Each portrait is made with the sitter large in the frame, looking directly into the lens, creating pathways of seeing, via the camera. In the flesh lengthy direct eye contact can be challenging and complex, rife with connotations, making it a rare occurrence. When intently faced with another we feel the vulnerability of being seen, or the power of seeing. Through portraiture this act of looking becomes permissible, creating a sense of connection and familiarity that may not be possible in real life.

In Observance this is taken further, where a conscious and specific inner attention was focused into the camera. Each sitter was photographed while actively holding in mind a prayer or mantra. Through the action of looking into the lens, this internal activity is projected into the camera. Fifteen-second exposures provide the window with which the film could capture that energy. Consequently these portraits are not decisive moments, or split seconds decided by the photographer that might reveal something of a character. They are the result of an intimate, and usually private, intention on the part of the sitter over time, creating a more balanced meeting point between the viewer and the sitter where they are each potentially ‘observing’ for similar period.

Why different faiths?

Recent studies have been inquiring into what faith is, why it exists, and where it resides in the brain. In one example scientists used high-tech imaging devices to observe the brains of meditating Buddhists and Franciscan nuns, and concluded that, “mystical experience is biologically, observably, and scientifically real”.*  It seems that regardless of the differences among religions and cultures, the experience of faith is a universal one. Given the current climate of intolerance and misunderstanding, it seems important to point towards the inherent commonality amongst humanity.

— Nicola Dove

*Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief’ by Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquill and Vince Rause