Last night I watched a great program on photography (“The Genius of Photography: Right Place, Right Time” – on Ovation TV). You can see a short clip from the show on photographs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki at this link. In a different part of the show, one of the interviewees shared a quote about the power of photographs that stopped me cold with it’s profoundness. I’ve since discovered that it’s actually quite a famous quote and I should probably be a little embarrassed that I’d never heard it, but I’ll share it with you just the same.
It’s by George Bernard Shaw, the uber-prolific turn-of-the-century Irish playwright, novelist, critic, etc. and goes a little something like this: “I would willingly exchange every single painting of Christ for one snapshot.“
First of all, don’t you agree? I certainly do, and I would venture to guess that most people would at least consider it. And that’s just shocking when you think about how many times Christ has been depicted in art through the last 2000 years. That’s a lot of precious artwork to cast aside for just one polaroid. But a picture is different than a painting isn’t it? That was definitely the point in the documentary, photographs are more real, more convincing, somehow more compelling. But I think the point of the quote is really about Christ. If you replaced his name with some other historically significant figure who we only know through art, like Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington, or Cleopatra, I don’t think we’d care as much. Personally, I’d be really disappointed to find out that Cleopatra didn’t really look like Elizabeth Taylor (Note: see comments below for clarification). I think we’re all cool with the reality of those people with or without photography. But I think in most of us there’s some seed of doubt as to who Jesus really was, if he was real at all. And for most people with a Christian background, there would be major vindication in seeing a real photograph of God.
Don’t get me wrong, if there was a picture of Jesus, the debate over its veracity would probably start world war III, which I think would pretty well negate any warm fuzzies in the hearts of a small number of Christians. But isn’t it interesting to consider how that would change the way people see and think about Christianity? Maybe more fun to consider, if there was a picture of Jesus, what would you want him to be doing in it? Would you want a picture of the virgin birth? If so would you stage a “gather round the manger scene” or would you want graphic obstetric photos proving Mary was a virgin at the time of delivery? Would you want a photo of the crucifixion? If so, would seeing him on the cross be enough, or would you need to see him dead after the spear wound? Or would you rather just have some random candid photo of Jesus chillin with his peeps in downtown Damascus? Maybe a myspace-style self-portrait where he’s holding the camera out to photograph himself? It’s so interesting to me because every one of those photos would be hugely significant culturally.
Well, to end this exploration I’ll leave you with this artistic rendering of the J man posing for a mentos ad. It’s possible that this might be the one kind of photo of Jesus that would actually be disappointing.