A peculiar people

Guest post from Hannah J. Welcome, Hannah!

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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.

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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.

Comments

  1. I love these photos so much. They capture things that make me crazy, and crazy in love, with Mormon life all at the same time.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    You have a good eye. Great photos.

    “Negotiating between those worlds is still a delicate balance that I will probably continue to work on throughout my entire life.”

    Nothing wrong with that. Everybody does that to some extent, whether they realize it or not.

  3. Wonderful, engaging, infuriating, endearing images. And your thoughts resonate.

  4. Great photos. They help me make sense of my own teenage upbringing in such a setting. We’re good, but we’re strange.

  5. V Pauni says:

    I wish there were a picture of a drinking fountain. Mormons have the coldest water on earth.

  6. Angela C says:

    Great pictures! Wow, they say it all really. As a woman who grew up surrounded by non-LDS people, I know what you mean about being in and out at the same time. I didn’t bring up religion much unless it came up naturally. I’m more comfortable now with it, but it’s also easier because the church has grown and is more well known now than ever. It used to be that people assumed you were going to enter polygamy, the only thing they (mistakenly) knew about Mormons. Honestly, even at my 20 year HS reunion, I still got polygamy jokes.

  7. I’m glad the bride and groom don’t seem to mind that someone brought a hula hoop to their wedding. Great images, these adults playing children’s games, eating children’s food. And yet as you point out, our relationship with the Gospel is rightly complex and probably will continue to be as we continue to negotiate our intersecting paths.

  8. I can’t stop coming back to look at the first one. There is something so hauntingly lonely about the balloons and the general composition of it.

    You have a great eye.

  9. Although I am from the UK these are still the YSA experience I remember, and the tensions you refer to regarding whether to talk about your Mormonism in academic settings is something that resonates with me. Thanks for the post.

  10. Angela C says:

    CathyG: “adults playing children’s games, eating children’s food” Nailed it.

  11. I’m not sure why but the photo I keep coming back to is of the senior missionary couple with the drinks cooler and a solitary balloon. To steal Cynthia’s word, I find it quite haunting.

  12. Haunting is right, but in the nicest way. The images have a timelessness to them, which can’t be assigned to aperture settings or even subject matter, necessarily- they’re very Mormon. You capture well the tension between your worlds.

    The loneliness of the red balloon… and the array of white-bread sandwiches, all the same….

  13. Thank you for these images. I served a mission in and out of these buildings and found it both intensely foreign and refreshing to worship in such a new place with such new and earnest people. Seeing it again as you show it makes me think of Mosiah 18:30 — a new place for new people getting to know God.

  14. My favorites:

    Apron strings and hula hoop.

    I love how the couple getting married has smiles frozen on their faces as they endure what must have been some horrible object lesson during their wedding.

    And apron strings: look at the tension in the woman’s hands as she fumbles with the knot in front of two living icons of LDS virtue.

    Very nice.

  15. I love these pictures. Like Cynthia said (or something akin to what Cynthia said), they capture what I love about the Church and what I find kind of embarrassing and what I kind of love being embarrassed about.

  16. Amanda Gracey says:

    Great post, Hannah! I always wished I had grown up in a more diverse culture so I could interact more with Mormons who have had all different life experiences. I got to experience it a little bit while living outside of the U.S. a couple of times, and it was refreshing. From your photos, though, I can see that the games and activities (and carpeted walls) are probably the same all over the world.

  17. I love the photos! Also, your thoughts on navigating the space between two worlds.

  18. I grew up in the heart of Utah, and I love both the pictures and the idea of walking in two different worlds.

    One of the reasons I was so comfortable talking about my religion in college in the Northeast, even in Divinity School classes, was that I had been walking a tightrope all my life as a member who realized at a very young age that he saw and understood things differently than everyone around me. In that sense, I have been a bit of any outsider all my life, even though I have been fully active in the Church all my life. I was the “academic outsider” growing up and the “religious outsider” attending college.

  19. culturally barren is how I’d describe it, rather than “haunting”

    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.

    I have experienced this certain kind of loneliness that can be part of being LDS as well.

  20. There is a pragmatism that I love in the picture of the older couple standing next to a drink cooler (I assume) on top of a garbage can. It’s unpretentious and simple (and naive to how it looks to outsiders), and it’s one of the things I love most about Mormon culture – even as other aspects of that culture frustrate me.

    I have been embarrassed by that naivete at certain points in my life, but I have come to embrace and value it over the years – especially as I have seen and been immersed professionally in its opposite. I prefer a balance, personally, but I value that naivete in a very real and emotional way.

  21. A subtext of that picture with the older couple is that it is viewed as a requirement that such a couple chaperone a group of adults while they play these children’s games. It says something about the infantilization that occurs in these settings and, I would guess, contributes to a lot of the attrition we see among that demographic in the Church. It just says we don’t trust them to be adults and live/act as the disciples of Jesus Christ that they profess to be.

  22. BHodges says:

    Well, thanks to that first photo I have a new desktop wallpaper.

    This is an excellent little photo essay, but I particularly resonated with this:

    “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.”

  23. I agree, johnf, with that frustration. If I could change only one thing about the singles programs, that would be it.

  24. Hannah,

    True photography question, nothing to be read into it: These pictures tend to be low-contrast (flat) and low-saturation (as opposed to vibrant). I’m assuming that’s an intentional choice, related to mood. (At least, for most photographers, vibrance, contrast and saturation tend to be artistic choices, since you can Photoshop any effect you want. Usually that choice has to do with mood and the photographers choices about how to frame a subject. It’s literally about the “light” in which you wish to cast your subject.

    Can you provide some background on development choices? The photographer in me is as curious as the Mormon in me. (One who got married two weeks after college and who had a neutral experience of the LDS singles scene, since I was in a situation where there were plenty of “prospects” outside of a church setting.)

  25. Hannah, what camera/lens/settings were you using?

  26. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    As a former YSA Ward activities rep, I can say that in our case, people loved to pick and choose the activities they came to, which was fine. Trying to do a decent job of decorating for a social event was trying with only a few ‘in charge’ of decorating and a large number whose participation was for the event. We were volunteers and didn’t get time off from work or school to decorate. Thus, a few balloons in a cavernous cultural hall would look sparse. Dealing with harsh fluorescent lighting was another challenge on combatting the stark look. You make it too dark, you get the criticism that you are dampening the spirituality of the mood.

    Nevertheless, I will say that I loved my time being involved in virginal 20-30s activities. We tried hard to come up with some original things to maintain variety and tried to make them seem ‘cool’. One of my favorites was playing the dating game “Spuds” based upon the television show ‘Studs’ that was popular at the time.

    Contrast that with other parties I went to where people would use the excuse of drinking alcohol to let down their inhibition and mingle or act silly, or joining the smoking crowd to be part of a smaller/more rebellious group within the crowd.

    I still remember many talks and lessons that occurred in my YSA Church blocks that were so influential during that time of life. Thanks for showing me the faces representative of that time of my life.

  27. Hannah j says:

    Thank you everyone for your comments and feedback. I have really enjoyed reading them. These images could be a base for a lot of interesting discussions other than what I wrote about and I am really glad that people have picked up on those other elements and emotions.

    Lorin/Steve Evans – I will try to answer your questions the best I can, although I took these pictures a while ago. The series was done in a color film class. I used a 35mm camera (Nikon F3) and printed my photos manually ( those who have done this in the past know this is very time consuming and a huge pain in the butt). I did not do any computer related adjustments to these photos. The color and depth may look a little strange just simply because it is harder to control manually prints color negatives of photos taken indoors. I suppose I could have cleaned them up in Photoshop since then, but part of the beauty of these photos for me at least comes from the manual process.

  28. paul jung says:

    Awesome pictures it is rewarding for an artist to see they have an engaged audience of 1200 odd people, very impressive, and they “like” you. The pictures are remarkable renditions of that specific cultural phenomena of the ward activity. Fun to read and see. My favourite are the people framed inside the hoola-hoop the red fire alarm adjacent the little red book, and the hand reaching for just another of those ubiquitous sandwiches.

  29. whizzbang says:

    it’s GREAT to hear about another Canadian Mormon in religious studies! I only did it for two years at my local Canadian University here in the gateway to the West…hint hint… but this post was an awesome read!

  30. Patrice R. says:

    I know these people in the pictures! It’s weird I thought I was the only ysa in Montreal reading the BBC.

    And I agree with Hannah. Academic and religious life can be a challenge to reconcile.

  31. “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.”

    Great stuff. Thank you for this.

  32. Barbara P (C) says:

    CathyG for the married couple, the hula hoop was to be used by the “hula hoop champion” turned and they were supposed to kiss as long as it turned…. unfortunately, it broke and flew off during the first turn!! having been there for that but not in a photo, those were great times!! Hannah also took photos at my wedding too!! they were great!!! nope, you’re not alone here Patrice R!!

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