Guest post from Hannah J. Welcome, Hannah!
In my first year of university I took a color film photography class where we were required to create a photo series. Every time I look at this series I made, I think about that element of childlike suburban peculiarity that exists within much of North American Mormon culture; carpeted walls and fake paintings, weddings taking place in basketball courts, and virginal 20-30 year olds playing games on a Friday night. Many of these experiences were no more than a replica of the activities I had when I was a teenager. I was aware that as I sampled the different powdered juices and interacted with the group of YSA that had been constructed as my dating pool, not too far away other people my age were experimenting with alcohol and sex for the first time.
During this year I moved into a new city without parents or friends and stepped into the world of academic critiques, and multicultural city life, all the while negotiating with my own religiosity. As I reflect on these images, I see that they haves come to visually embody that negotiation between my love for my local Young Single Adult (YSA) branch and my progression towards of more nuanced ways to critique and think about religion.
At least two thirds of my branch were recent converts–people who had testimonies but had no concept of the cultural assumptions of Mormonism. It was exciting to be with them as together we learnt about and grew into the gospel. Mixed into our activities there was usually over 8 missionaries interacting with investigators, teaching new converts, or sneaking away from their respective meetings to join the fun. The branch also had an incredible amount of diversity, partly owing to our geographical boundaries inside downtown Montreal but also because of the range of recent converts who had come within our fold. It was common for people in our branch to know at least three languages and during an activity for our branch anniversary, we sang, “I am a Child of God” in at least eight different languages. We lived inside of our own bubble where we decorated cookies, performed in talent shows, and drank pop.
I came to Montreal to study photography but I found myself being drawn away from art and into classes on religion, sexuality, and philosophy. I found that academia both gave me tools with which to think about religion with nuance but also allowed me to have a safe space for my questions and critiques to be engaged. However, I felt trapped in a dichotomy where I could not talk about my religiosity to my classmates without feeling like I was discrediting myself, and I could not engage with church members about what I was learning in university lest they deemed me too critical. It was also during this period of time, my Mormon boyfriend broke up with me for questioning traditional family roles and questioning the church’s policies on homosexuality. As the year progressed, I had to show and explain my pictures to my classmates but I could not bear to admit my membership in the church. It became increasingly difficult to answer the pressing questions of how I was able to get such intimate shots of a group in which I was a supposed outsider. I feared the reaction of my professor who had an alternative sexual orientation, the outspokenly atheist teacher’s assistant, and my class of exaggerated socialist types. I was scared of all the inherited perceptions of Mormons would be projected onto me and make my complex and purposeful relationship to my church become oversimplified. My fears were only confirmed by their broad stroke negative comments about religion. During this year, I put a strict divide between my religious and academic worlds. Eventually as I progressed in my degree, I relaxed my boundaries between my religious and academic worlds, cautiously allowing them to ever so slightly bleed into one another. Negotiating between those worlds is still a delicate balance that I will probably continue to work on throughout my entire life. Yet I can’t help notice that the way that my unique position of both academically digesting religion and being an active participant affected the way is embodied in which I framed both of these images.
Hannah J. was born and raised on the West Coast of Canada around mountains and the ocean. She graduated her with a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies in Montreal. In September she will start a Masters in Cultural Analysis and Social Theory; please don’t ask her what that degree entails, she does not know yet. Besides academic related pursuits Hannah J. enjoys hiking, biking, knitting, gardening, eating good food, and going on wetsuit adventures.