Here are the results of my photographing this year’s Ash Wednesday. You can see an edit from previous years here. I have been photographing this day in midtown Manhattan for 14 years now, but since it’s only one day a year it is a slow process. It’s like I have been shooting for only 14 days. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent in the Catholic calendar (Episcopals do it too), so it’s actually a somber day meant to remind the faithful of their mortality, the inevitability of sin and of the promise of forgiveness. It has always struck me that, when administering ashes, the priest says, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
In case you are wondering, I am not Catholic. I was raised Methodist. My grandfather was a Methodist minister but died when I was one year old so I don’t remember him. My grandmother, walking around her kitchen, talked a lot about him and shared their humanist beliefs with me. I believe that much of the way I see the world was shaped there in her kitchen.
The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that very ordinary people, heading to the train, to work or school, exercise the simple act of wearing their faith for this one day a year. A very old ritual against the backdrop of modern society.
As a photographer it is something of a ritual for me as well. When I began the project in 1997, I wasn’t planning on shooting Ash Wednesday but walking around on the street to photograph… anything. One of those days happened to be Ash Wednesday. Because of my relative unease with the camera back then, I used to center the subject and have them engage the camera. Now I do anything I can to avoid people posing or looking in the camera. But for the sake of continuity I return to this way of photographing people, sort of a testimonial portrait, for one day a year.
I am editing the series for book publication in the near future. I want to thank Amy Skinner from the Guggenheim Foundation for coming with me this year, documenting the day and for being a lovely presence.