Bedford holds a B.A. in Religion from George Washington University, with an emphasis on American Religious Traditions, and an M.F.A. in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University. Her photographs are part of the permanent collection at the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University. She has had solo exhibitions at the Daylight Project Space, and the Allen Building Gallery at Duke University.
Born and raised in Washington, DC, Bedford currently resides in Los Angeles, CA, and is working on photography projects on the West Coast and in the South. She also teaches 35mm and large format film photography at art centers around the country.
Ashley Kauschinger: What started your interest in the “The International Peace Mission Movement” and how did you gain access to their community?
Kristin Bedford: As an undergraduate studying American Religious Traditions I came across the book Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North. Written by the cultural anthropologist Arthur Huff Fauset in 1940, the book surveyed five non-traditional African American religious traditions in Philadelphia. I was struck by Fauset’s respectful approach to researching fringe religious movements that were usually stereotyped and dismissed.
Over the years Fauset’s book has always been in the back of my mind. In the summer of 2013, I set out to photograph the modern day legacy of these five groups in Philadelphia. After a few weeks of hitting the pavement I found each of the groups and began photographing them all. In the largest chapter of the book, Fauset features Father Divine and the International Peace Mission Movement. Father Divine, known to his followers as God, had tens of thousands of devotees in the 1930s. It was when I met the modern day followers that my project took on a new and unexpected direction.
Fauset met the followers of Father Divine at their church headquarters on Broad Street in Philadelphia. My journey began when I knocked on this same church door. The sign out front said there would be a service that afternoon but the church was locked. An elderly man came to the door and told me to go to Father Divine’s estate to find the followers and to attend a “holy communion banquet.” I made the trip to the estate, known as Woodmont, and was warmly greeted by the followers. They invited me to come to their Sunday banquet, which is the followers’ sacred meal where they reflect on and listen to the words of Father Divine.
To the outside world Father Divine died in 1965, but for his followers he “lay his body down” and is still with them as he always has been. Now in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, eighteen of the remaining celibate followers live with Mother Divine at Woodmont. The movement is diminishing in numbers, and the followers are looking for ways to maintain Father Divine’s legacy. During the Sunday banquet, the followers suggested that I introduce myself, so I told them about my Fauset photography project. After the banquet ended, the followers asked me if I could help them create an on-site photo archive. They have over eighty years of the movement’s photographs at Father Divine’s estate.
The scope of this undertaking was daunting, but I could not pass up the opportunity to see and organize the photographic history of such a prolific religious movement. Ten days later I moved into Woodmont to help create the Father Divine photo archive.
Each day that I spent at Woodmont I was struck by the visual richness of the community’s life and rituals. A week into working on their photo archive, I asked if it would be okay if I took photos of the followers during my stay. With their permission, I began photographing the Woodmont community. The one stipulation was that I could never photograph Mother Divine, as she is sacred for them. I agreed to honor their request, and spent five weeks working with their archival photos, and concurrently creating my own body of work.
AK: What was your process of photographing? Do you intervene? Do you have a plan?
KB: My process is to turn myself over to the unknown and let my photos tell me what the story is. I immerse myself in a situation and try to be as present and focused as I possibly can. It is from this place that I make photographs. The only things I can control are my intentions and my craft. The story the photos tell is something that is slowly revealed over time, and I must wait to see what it is.
While living at Woodmont I sat quietly until moments appeared when I could take a photo. I wanted the rhythm of the followers’ daily rituals to guide me. I came to know when it was appropriate to be present with a camera, and the followers would let me know when I could photograph them. Most photography of the movement has been focused on Father and Mother Divine. My interest lay in portraying the people who sustain the movement. It is the enduring faith of the followers that I felt drawn to photographing.
The portraits in this series are often shot from a very close distance. I work with a fixed lens, which conveys both my proximity to the subject, and the level of trust that is present. I want to be physically close to see the smaller signs and nuances of a situation. Photographing faith is a challenge and if there is any chance I might capture glimmers of it, I need to be patient and near.
AK: How do you think about editing your work?
KB: I edit photographs based on intuition. I choose photos that speak to me, and I abandon any sort of logical thinking about what images make more sense than others. After my initial group of photos has been chosen, I then return to see what themes are emerging from them. At that point I begin to see how the story will weave together.
The theme that stood out in this series was of the quiet moments and daily rituals of the followers. Their small actions reveal their steadfast connection to Father Divine. I chose photos that I hope will offer glimpses of their mysterious and constant faith. With the lack of new followers, their movement is likely in its final chapter. I was given the privilege of seeing their traditions before they fade away. With these photos I want to convey the beauty and the tension of the path they are on.
AK: Did you have any preconceived notions about this group of individuals before you became shooting? Has your prospective changed at all since you have taken an in depth look?
KB: During the many banquets I attended during my time at Woodmont, the followers would play recordings of Father Divine’s talks while they ate. I was always intrigued when Father Divine used photography as a way to explain faith. Father Divine preached that followers should “focus their lens” on his vision of peaceful living and racial equality. If a follower was able to embody these beliefs, they would create “The Perfect Picture.”
I chose to name this series after Father Divine’s concept of “The Perfect Picture.” The prescription to embody world peace is an overwhelming idea to me. I saw that the followers were not approaching Father Divine’s vision of perfection with bold moves. They were realizing his truth in constant, small gestures.
Before I met the followers of Father Divine, my only knowledge of the movement was based on Fauset’s research. I had few preconceived notions of who they were. Fauset treated them with respect and objectivity, and I entered my relationship with the movement in the same spirit. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to see and hear their stories firsthand. If I had brought stereotypes to our relationship, I fear I would have missed the small gestures. I imagine I would have missed getting to see their manifestation of “The Perfect Picture.”