Religious Outcasts: Images of Marginalized Faith
Photos courtesy Rick Nahmias
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“California is the most diverse religious landscape in the entire world,” says Los Angeles-based photojournalist Rick Nahmias. In Golden States of Grace: Prayers of the Disinherited, a book and installation currently on display at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, Nahmias lifts the veil on the most marginalized people of faith, from San Quentin's Zen Buddhist inmates to San Francisco's sex workers who seek protection in Santa Muerte.
“Working with incarcerated groups, like guys in San Quentin, I found that they were incredibly articulate and incredibly passionate about their religious observances,” says Nahmias. “It’s kind of a no-brainer. When you’re a prisoner, you’ve got a lot of time on your hands. The way these prisoners contemplated their relationships with God and the idea of redemption was very, very moving to me ... these people, in my opinion, spent some very serious time looking at issues of how they relate to a higher power, and often went to very deep levels of evaluation of where they fit into the spiritual landscape.” Here, a Vietnam veteran serving a life sentence in San Quentin participates in a walking meditation inside the prison.
“This body of work began at the very early years of the Bush administration as a conscious reaction to the fundamentalist religious right taking hold of religion and saying, 'You're either in our church or out of it,'" says Nahmias. "That closed the doors on a lot of people who were finding faith and community and spirituality outside of mainstream Christianity." Here, a woman serving her fourth decade of incarceration over a first-degree murder conviction discusses her conversion to indigenous worship. "My glass will always be half full," she told Nahmias. "I remember saying to someone, 'It probably seems odd to you that I would say that I'm non-violent.' And they said, Not really, people who have experienced violence are probably the strongest advocates against it.'"
“Santa Muerte is a kind of the goddess of death who protects people who work in dangerous professions, like prostitutes and drug dealers,” says Nahmias. “Many people observe the deity in their own personal lives through alters, statues, and candles. That iconography fits their own personal devotion rather than the act of going to an organized location." Here, a Mexican sex worker living in San Francisco wears the charm of the "Holy Death" around her neck. She only takes it off when she showers. "All of humanity is afraid of death," she told Nahmias. "This is a preparation for death. More than anything, it's about not being afraid to know there will be something after my spiritual release."
“There was a common denominator with virtually all of these groups. As bad off as they may have been financially, physically, in the eyes of society, they found a very deep significance in service and giving back to whatever in any way they could,” says Nahmias. Here, bread is broken at the Beit T'Shuvah treatment center for Jewish addicts.
“I was born Jewish, but I really am more spiritual than I am a practitioner of organized religion,” says Nahmias. But "I always had an interest, not in the liturgy of religious studies, but in the humanistic side of how people observed rituals and ceremonies,” he says. For Nahmias, studying marginalized religious groups “asks bigger questions about who belongs, who’s given a place in our society, and who has to work from outside of it." He calls it studying religion "from the bottom up."