A Spanish photographer specialising in social issues, Fernando Moleres is also fascinated by spirituality. He talks to Merril Stevenson about capturing simplicity and self-effacement...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
Fernando Moleres, best known for his work on social issues such as sweated labour and children in prison, is a self-confessed "total atheist". So why did he spend more than three years travelling the world to capture images of men and women of faith? (Slideshow)
"I was looking for spirituality, which isn't the same thing as religion," he says. "And it was a moment in my personal life when I needed space and time to reflect." So off he went to places where faith still burns like a candle in the night of what he sees as an increasingly consumerist and ego-obsessed society.
Moleres was drawn in particular to monastic communities, and to other believers who opt to live apart from the world. In 2001 he spent time in Ethiopia, with its remote rock-hewn churches tended by monks whose ancient form of worship carries echoes of the first Christians. He took up the search again in 2006, wandering through some of the less accessible parts of Europe and the Middle East. He once lay hidden in a church for three hours listening to Gregorian chant. It was "an indescribable internal voyage".
Almost all his visits were unprogrammed and unannounced. One was to the Geghard monastery in Armenia, with its churches carved out of rock, another to Jerusalem at Easter. Among the things that most interested him was the way monastic communities actually live. "They are the only collective that deliberately goes against the modern consumerist current," Moleres argues. A typical smaller monastery will consume hardly anything.
But spirituality can also be found in all sorts of places that have nothing to do with organised monasticism. In the Mokattam district of Cairo, Nageh Marzok, a church helper who is heavily tattooed with symbols of his Coptic Christian faith, told Moleres he was sending a message to Muslims: "I am an Egyptian Copt". "Everyone needs to belong to a group," Moleres says. "Even anchorites in the desert who can't actually live in a group keep belonging to one." Shia Muslims in Iran mourn the death of their Imam Hussain (above). In India the ultimate ascetics, the Naga sadhus, process to the Ganges for their holy ablutions at one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, the Ardh Kumbh Mela.
These are pictures of people, not grand landscapes or edgy urban geometry. Figures are thrown into relief by light. It could be read as standing for the devotion they exude, but Moleres himself shies away from symbolism. "It's the humanist side of things that gets me going," he says. "People are my central focus."
Two qualities inspire photojournalism, he argues—curiosity and engagement. He has plenty of both. Engagement came almost as a birthright. Born in 1963 in Bilbao, he grew up in the Basque Country at a time when it was being torn apart by political unrest. "Seeing this struggle every time you leave the house affects you, it makes you get involved with big themes." And it was curiosity that drove him to travel as a young man. Earning his way as a nurse, working on a boat, in a circus or on construction sites, he went to Venezuela, Canada and Nicaragua in the Sandinista era, among other places.
He took a camera with him, and it was in South Africa in 1990, where he saw life in the segregated townships and children breaking their backs harvesting sugarcane, that his holiday snaps turned into published photography. A mission and a prize-winning career were born. Was he altered by following in the footsteps of the faithful? There were no grand revelations, but he says he was struck by the simplicity and self-effacement of the devout. Eastern devotion seems to resonate more with him than Western: the pursuit of a still centre within oneself, rather than the search for God.
There could be a tension between the desire to cultivate an inner equilibrium and the resolve to right the world's wrongs, as Moleres has returned to doing since he completed his spiritual tour d'horizon. Not really, he says. If you are confused, you are no good to the people around you. To help others, you must first help yourself. These pictures are steps along that road.
Merril Stevenson is the home affairs editor at The Economist and a former Britain editor