Many years ago, photographer Thomas Freteur’s grandfather offered him a Hasselblad camera—one that he himself had used during his photographic career, which began in the early 1950s. Was this the spark that led Freteur towards making photographs? It certainly directed him, but Freteur is hesitant to credit this single gift with cementing his connection to the medium.

After all, further encouragement came from a collective he formed in his native Belgium, “Out-of-Focus,” which pushed him to develop his practice. As time went on, Freteur used his camera more and more to delve into his insatiable curiosity about the world at large. This exploration began in Belgium but quickly moved further afield: the Carpathian Mountains; the unexplored areas of Haiti; the creative ferment of Brooklyn.

In sum: a welcome gift led to a nurturing group, which allowed his search for answers to germinate and grow.

At the top of the peak, a woman prays intensely. The red tarpaulin bundle at her feet will be rolled onto the ground so that the faithful can prostrate themselves in the name of their gods. © Thomas Freteur, Juror’s Pick, LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2017

An oddly parallel origin lies at the heart of Freteur’s award-winning series, “The Faithful,” produced on an arid, rocky, isolated and altogether unlikely hill in rural Haiti called Ti Pinsik. This site is in no way unique at first glance, but, serendipitously, this place has gained deep spiritual significance thanks to another grandfather’s gift almost 50 years ago. In the midst of a great storm, “a day of thunder,” the Pastor Washington was born on the hill of Ti Pinsik. The hill, given to the Pastor by his grandfather, has since become a place of worship, a communal spot for the faithful to gather and pursue their own path to wisdom.

In Haiti, a diversity of beliefs is baked into the soil. The country’s “Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cults” lists more than 175 active, distinct churches: Army of Christ, Heavenly Host, Apostolic Church of Deliverance, Assembly of God, Church of God, Church of God in Christ…or, as the locals say, “60% are Catholics, 40% Protestants but 100% are Vodou [voodoo].”

Regardless of the population’s differing beliefs, a shared faith in a higher power spurs the people to desolate places like Ti Pinsik. What began as a personal interaction between grandfather and grandson was bolstered and developed by the beliefs of likeminded individuals; one cannot help but see the parallel between this place and Freteur’s own experience. What ties it all together—holy sites, faithful worshippers, grandfathers, and photographers—is a desire to seek answers.

The Faithful © Thomas Freteur, Juror’s Pick, LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2017

But what caused these two stories to collide? What brought Freteur into Pastor Washington’s spiritual orbit? Chance, Freteur tells us. While scouting locations for a video music shoot for Chouk Bwa, a Vodou music band he manages, Freteur found this holy hill. In his words, “the people were praying with such intensity, the early morning light was delightful, there was a kind of energy floating among us…it was clear in my mind that I would go back.”

Does this make Freteur one of the faithful himself? Not exactly; yet neither is he an atheist. Rather, in his words, “No matter if you believe in something or not, at one point of your life, you will pray.” And so, through Freteur’s pictures, we join the faithful who come and go from Ti Pinsik. With them we pray, sing, dance, and sleep.

In these photographs, Jim Casper writes, we find scenes “filled with an unusually bright, warm light you experience only in a high arid desert—or when in a momentary state of grace… [these pictures] share intensity and a hushed sense of quiet, ageless, spiritual devotion.” Whether or not we believe in Pastor Washington, or even a greater spiritual force, there is something in Freteur’s story that brings us closer to the light.

—Alexander Strecker

A short, behind-the-scenes video made by Freteur on site. Reveals a different dimension to the intense elements faced by the faithful who travel each day to Ti Pinsik to pray…

Editors’ note: This project was singled out by Editor-in-Chief Jim Casper as his juror’s pick for the Emerging Talent Awards 2017. Discover all of the inspiring, diverse, international photographers who were chosen among this year’s 50 talents!