I had a bit of a run-away train of thought this afternoon while I was buying a set of lenses to enhance my iPhone photography skills. One of the brief stops was to wonder just why it is that during every Kemetic Orthodox group ritual I’ve attended, we pause to take photos of the altar — and not just one or two quick snapshots, either. There’s a good ten minute chunk of time devoted to making sure that each assemblage of candles, offerings, and images of Netjer is properly documented. We very occasionally take pictures of our fellowship before and after, and almost never take any photos during the ritual. It’s become something of a good-natured joke, now, that for every 20 photos of an altar, you’ll find one or two from the rest of the day.
I can see some sense in not taking pictures of each other relaxing and socializing. For one, not everyone is open about being Kemetic, and it can be hard to know who might be concerned about privacy and keeping their identity under wraps. For another, many people just don’t like being photographed, and don’t particularly want to be in front of the camera lens no matter how nice it would be to share photos of the event later.
I can see quite a bit of sense in not taking photos during the ritual. Taking photos during a sacred experience is distracting both to the photographer and the participants. These rituals are meant to be experienced in the moment. Even though having images to share with those who are unable to be physically present could be an asset, it would detract from the overall experience so greatly that we might lose more than we gain.
Still, I think a part of us wants to capture the closeness of community and the beauty of ritual without transgressing either of these boundaries — and what better to capture the spirit and essence of group worship than the altar around which we all gather? The ritual revolves around this focal point, and our fellowship revolves around the ritual. An altar is a carefully constructed place of devotion, and often for group worship we build it as a group. In lieu of photos of each other or of the actual ritual, therefore, we take pictures of the center point that draws us all in.
What we really seek to share, after all, is something intangible. The feeling of grace kneeling before the gods. The closeness in sharing laughter with others who believe as we do. These things can’t be captured on camera. From that perspective, why not take dozens of photos of the same altar? It is the nearest thing that can represent what we truly share when we worship together.