As a child in Tennessee, the now Tokyo-based photographer Andrew Faulk was reared as a church-going Christian. Though he didn’t really want to participate until he became old enough to make his own decisions on the matter, he had no choice.
Raised as a Southern Baptist, attending church was non-negotiable. Sunday morning meant waking, putting “church clothes” on, enduring three or four hours of bible study, and sanctuary preaching. Until I was of legal age, I was expected to adhere to this schedule and was considered part of the congregation.
Andrew makes clear that his parents’ desire to raise him religious came from good intentions. He also notes the numerous positive messages he learned through the lens of Jesus and the church as a whole. But those same sentiments of love and understanding felt disingenuous to Andrew when he contrasted them with the more unsavory elements of the church.
At church, I found a balance of comforting elements associated with the message of Jesus: a model of love, a lion against injustice, and a symbol of humility. But even at a young age, I noticed as many hypocrisies and inconsistencies in the order and function of the church itself. I saw the church used as a political device, the pulpit used to devalue non-traditional lifestyles, and personal agendas wrongfully upheld in the name of faith.
Thus, Andrew left the church and left it with far more questions than answers. Still, he never totally abandoned the idea of God and ended up forgiving his parents for the “mental domination” of his formative years. Eventually, Andrew found himself studying a swath of religions, trying to learn more about why so many people turn to God when looking for direction in life. This research inspired him to take a trip to Ethiopia in late 2019 to meet one of the largest congregations of Christians on the African continent.
Lalibela Pilgrims is a personal project and another attempt to understand people of faith, observe the ways they search for purpose, and to continue to personally heal. I first learned about the town of Lalibela from the book “100 Sacred Places: A Discovery of the World’s Most Revered Holy Sites.”
For many in Christians in Africa, Lalibela is their Mecca. The trip to the eastern part of the continent is grueling and dangerous, but the journey represents a trek that millions of people have made over the course of nearly a century.
For most of the year, Lalibela (pop. ~ 17,000) is a sleepy village in northern Ethiopia. But during the first few days of January, Lalibela explodes five-fold. Pilgrims come, many barefoot and exhausted after walking hundreds of miles. For most, the pilgrimage to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
All have come to take the path from darkness into the light, a vision originally conceived by King Lalibela during the 12th century. Lalibela Pilgrims looks at the human swell who make the journey to the monolithic churches (UNESCO World Heritage Site) to both celebrate and contemplate.
The photographer got to Lalibela a few days before the pilgrims descended upon the small town so he could see what that dynamic was like in real time. Of course, Andrew spent much of his time around the subjects and, in doing so, gained a better understanding of their faith. It didn’t hurt that everyone Andrew met was warm and welcoming.
Interacting with the pilgrims, many of whom had traveled hundreds of kilometers on foot, was humbling. As an editorial and commercial photographer, it was interesting to take a step back and enter a more documentary headspace, to become an observer.
I was met with curiosity and interest. But throughout the whole time, I never encountered anything but a gracious welcome from the pilgrims and residents of Lalibela.
This trip is just the beginning of what Andrew hopes will be a series of imagery from different religious sites around the world. While he wants to go back to Lalibela to experience the pilgrimage again, he knows there are other places he should get to as a way to broaden the scope of his understanding with regards to the devoutly religious. If the reaction to this work from the Christian community is any indication, Andrew’s photographic contributions will be nothing but a positive.
The reaction, especially from members of the Christian community, has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Continuing to make the effort to understand others is my attempt to contribute a drop of honey into our current ocean of vinegar. We must contribute positively if there is any chance of a world where all humans can peacefully coexist with mutual respect.
See more of Andrew’s work at andrewfaulk.com.
Explore our global network of photographers on our Find Photographers page!