I still feel a slight pang of guilt when I look at this image.
It was taken at Sts Cyril and Methodius Church in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and the sign at the entryway could not have been clearer: No Photographs.
It was late afternoon on my second – and last – day in the city. After having wandered the central streets of this laid back European capital for the nth time, I decided to venture further outside of the old town core, when I came across the somewhat peculiar structure of this Serbian Orthodox church. From the outside it was nothing spectacular by the standards of European churches. It was none too tall, wide, or ornate, and it's walls were finished with an almost modern looking off-white hue. Rather I was struck by how seemingly squat and square it appeared, how understated it's presentation.
I circled the grounds, snapping some pictures of the structure without much luck. A pair of older men sat on the short cascading flight of steps chatting and smoking and I nodded at them as I approached the open door of the church and entered.
Immediately upon entering I was struck by the contrast between the outer facade and the interior of the church. Inside the church was dimly lit by little more than a few narrow windows and a pair of resplendent chandeliers, one hanging near the front of the chapel, and the other just inside the entryway. I moved through the entryway, past the NO PHOTOGRAPHY sign - complete with illustration of a camera with a circle and a line through it - and was struck dumb as I entered the small main chamber of the church.
Climbing from floor to ceiling, brightly coloured paintings depicting biblical stories covered nearly every square inch of available surface area. Every wall, arch, pillar, nook, cranny, alcove, recess, and the whole of the ceiling were covered in vibrantly hued tales which seemed to jump straight out of their two dimensional world and into ours, even in the chapel's dim light.
The church was empty, and I sat down quietly off to the side to soak in this unexpected scene. I had the urge to pull up my camera which was currently hanging from my shoulder, and go on a wild snapping spree. The location bordered on bizarre, and I knew that this is something I wanted to remember and have a record of, and yet at the same time I struggled with the desire to be a responsible tourist and to respect the local customs.
As I wrestled with my conflicting emotions, a woman entered the church, middle aged and clearly a local. She settled into one of the seats on the far side of the chapel and bowed her head. Minutes passed, and I was about to get up and leave, allowing her to conduct her business with God in peace, when she rose, pulled out her phone, and took a panorama of the interior of the magnificent house of worship before leaving quietly, glancing at me on her way out.
My heart soared, emboldened by the fact that I was not the only one flaunting the rules imposed by the church. I quickly switched out my all-purpose zoom lens for a wide angle, cranked open the aperture to account for the lack of light, and snapped a quick couple of shots, focussing in on the golden chandelier which anchored the scene. The shutter clicks echoed out loudly through the halls of the church and I sheepishly looked over my shoulder to see if there was anyone else around. No one.
As I slung my camera back over my shoulder and made my way to the entry way, an elderly man with a distinctive long, grey beard, and dressed in the black vestments of an orthodox priest emerged from a side room near the door. With a subtle glance at my camera he offered a wry toothy smile and a slight bow, both of which I returned, though perhaps more sheepishly than wryly. The exchange left me feeling as though I had walked in on some secret rite, of which I was not supposed to know, but now that there was no going back, no unseeing what I had seen, I had instead been initiated into the brotherhood and sworn to secrecy.
I have no particular loyalty to the Serbian Orthodox Church (in fact I had scarcely heard of them until that day), and yet the experience has left me with a sense of questioning and a niggling sense of guilt. What harm could possibly come from a photo. I'm positive the rule is in place to preserve the sanctity of the chapel, to allow members to worship, pray, or meditate in peace, without the pesky shutter clicks of a dozen tourists. The church was empty as I snapped my few photos, and had I not encountered the priest I would've felt no shame.
Even in my brief interaction with him he displayed no sign of disappointment, anger or judgement, just a knowing smile, warm and kindly, and a mirthful twinkle in his eyes. Somehow our encounter imparted a deep sense of introspection whenever I view this image these days. I am happy I took the photo, I love it and it reminds me of the time and place like no other, yet it also causes me to think about where I draw the line for bending or breaking rules in the name of my art.
What do you think? Where do you draw the line on bending or breaking rules in exchange for an image. What criteria must you meet to justify getting the image? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section to keep the conversation going!
1/20 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100, 11mm Processed in Lightroom
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