Ash Wednesday 2011

Untitled, 2011 from Ash Wednseday. Photographs by Greg Miller.

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.

Behind the scenes photographs by Amy Skinner

  • David

    Your portraits are inspirational. Please keep making them.

  • Sherman

    They truly are an inspiration. One day I will muster up the courage to ask strangers to pose for my 4×5. I am curious to know your approach. Do you give them a card so something where they can get a print? Or do you take the picture and that’s it? Fantastic.

    If your ever in Jersey and need someone to carry heavy stuff. Send me note.

    Take care,

  • Hank flynn

    My uncle Phil rocks!

  • gilderic

    Wonderful portraits!

  •, Susan Phillips

    Thank you for sharing your images – lovely!

    I would like to share with you that many Protestant Christians also observe Lent and Ash Wednesday. I’m a Presbyterian pastor and prayed with folks this evening as we made signs of the cross with the ashes from last year’s palm fronds.


  • Roberta

    very moving. very sacred. thank you.

  • Angela

    These images are stunnning, and I loved the NPR article. “A very old ritual against the backdrop of modern society.” — What a neat project idea… very original. Keep it going!

  • Linda

    Beautiful! Thank you.

  • Kim Green

    I’m so pleased to have found this and to have met you. I so enjoyed talking to you in the garden yesterday. 

    Best wishes, Kim 

  • Chels

    AMAZING!!! <3