Images of African-American religious gatherings are often be characterized by a certain feverish, ecstatic energy. Photographer Kristin Bedford was interested in documenting a different vision of worship. When she moved to North Carolina to pursue her MFA in experimental and documentary arts at Duke University, Bedford embedded herself in the congregation of the Apostolic Deliverance Rebirth Outreach Ministries, a storefront church in East Durham, N.C. “There is no one way that people worship, and faith is a very complex, nuanced place. I wanted to see what else was out there,” Bedford said.
Bedford spent a month visiting different storefront churches in Durham before she settled on Apostolic Deliverance as the best place to conduct her visual exploration of faith. “It was a bank, then a pawnshop, then a clothing store, and then a vacant space that was rented out by various churches,” Bedford said. “It’s a small room, but there was a sense of openness in it, and there also seemed to be a sense of humility.”
The first time Bedford photographed the church, she shot with black-and-white film. But when she looked at the photos afterward, she wasn’t satisfied, feeling that they too closely resembled photos of the same subject matter from the 1960s. “I feel that W.E.B. Du Bois typifies African-American worship when he talks about the Frenzy, and that was written at the turn of the last century,” Bedford said. “I don’t think that we’ve visually progressed past this stereotype, and I think a lot of photography has been at the service of that stereotype. There are the iconic shots that we know of African American worship of a sweaty, frenzied choir or preacher—very dynamic and sometimes chaotic worship. I didn’t want to be part of that conversation.”
The next time Bedford came to the church shoot, she photographed in color. She felt those photos represented a more contemporary vision of religious worship. “They end up being about stillness and contemplation and the moments between moments,” Bedford said.
Bedford returned to Apostolic Deliverance every Sunday for 10 months, photographing throughout four- to five-hour services. She never photographed standing up, opting instead to sit in the pews with children or on the floor. “I think that helped in creating this body of work, that I was humble in the space, not getting in the pastor’s way, not trying to take pictures from the podium, but taking pictures sitting in the congregation and being present in that experience,” Bedford said.