Faces of Faith

by Michal Novotny

 

You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself. – Swami Vivekananda. Michal started his journey towards God, religion and spirituality through his photojournalism.

 

Curated by Apratim Saha

When I was growing up in Communist Czechoslovakia, my teachers told me that there is no God and that religion is the opium of the people. Many years later I embarked on a personal journey: to observe people who believe in gods, and maybe, at the end of the journey, to find God.

When I was little, opulent baroque churches and severe gothic cathedrals alike were empty, and my grandparents didn’t attend church even on the major holidays.

In the early 1990s, as a photojournalist, I travelled to wars in the former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus – Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, Chechnya, and Kosovo, where mass murder was being committed in the name of God and nation. I couldn’t understand how faith could be so important that it would make you go and kill your neighbour.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyA shaman performs a ritual in a forest 100km north of the capital Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – December 13, 2014

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnySunday open-air mass of a pentecostal church in Kananga, DR Congo, May 7, 2005

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyIndian holy men – sadhus photographed during Maha Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in Allahabad, January 23, 2007. Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. It is considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world.

In 2001 I travelled to Allahabad, India for the Maha Kumbh Mela mass Hindu pilgrimage. In the chilly January weather, 40 million pilgrims arrived to wash away their sins in the holy water. I wondered at the force that could motivate millions of people to embark on this exhausting journey, for some thousand of kilometres long. In morning mists and by evening fires, I saw hundreds of naked sadhus covered in nothing but ashes. They had renounced all possessions, abandoned their families, and set out on a spiritual journey. I met a holy man who had raised his arm in the year of my birth, and as far as I know is still holding it aloft to this day, forty-five years later. I left, quite fascinated and resolved to explore manifestations of faith wherever and whenever possible.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyChristmas pilgrimage to Lalibela, Ethiopia – January 4, 2014

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyDecember 4, 2017 – students of St. George Orthodox Theological Seminary sing during a liturgy in the cathedral of Roman, Romania.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyShi’ite worshipers bleed while cutting their scalps in a ritual display of mourning during an Ashura commemoration ceremony in Karbala, Iraq, 2003. Ashura marks the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson the revered Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq in 680 AD. Shi’ite festivals were prohibited during the time of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule.

In Iraq, I walked in a holy procession of men in white robes who slashed their heads with long knives. Blood squirted everywhere and I tried to refrain from condemning them. After Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, the oppressed Shias could finally freely mourn the death of Imam Husayn – the grandson of the Prophet himself, who fell in the Battle of Karbala. In the Congo, I participated in Pentecostal services during which demons were exorcised from the faithful. These endless rituals are accompanied by screaming and shouting, wild drumming and singing, and are very impressive. Regardless of whether possession is feigned or not, I think that the spread of the Pentecostal movement has a positive effect on Congolese society – in structures more reminiscent of shacks than churches, pastors preach that one should not drink alcohol, steal, or rape and beat your women. In a country that for many years had no rules, the faithful are beginning to listen. And their numbers are increasing.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyBuddhist monks wait for alms during the That Luang Festival in Vientiane, Laos on November 14, 2016

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyLen Dong ritual of Dao Mau cult celebrated in the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam on September 14, 2016.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnySufi festival Shebi Arus celebrated in Kacuni, Bosnia. December 17, 2015. Sufism, according to its adherents, is the inner mystical dimension of Islam.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyBuddhist monks in Gandan monastery, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – November 30, 2014.

I didn’t start believing in spirits or demons, but when a female Mongolian shaman placed her hand near mine, I felt the heat, as if it were burning. From spirits that entered a medium during the Lên đồng ritual belonging to the ancient Vietnamese mother-goddess religion, I received money, sweets, and even cigarettes. On the Thai island of Phuket, I observed local Chinese entering into a trance so that the gods could enter their bodies. They then have their faces pierced by one or even several large swords, set out on a long procession through the town, and not even a drop of blood would seep from their wounds.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyGetting out of trance – Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Phuket, Thailand – October 8, 2016

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyEaster – Palm Sunday in Aidone, Sicily – Italy – April 9, 2017

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyJanuary 12, 2019 – Hundreds of Jewish pilgrims have arrived to celebrate yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Tzadik David Biderman to the small Polish.

I didn’t start believing in spirits or demons, but when a female Mongolian shaman placed her hand near mine, I felt the heat, as if it were burning. From spirits that entered a medium during the Lên đồng ritual belonging to the ancient Vietnamese mother-goddess religion, I received money, sweets, and even cigarettes. On the Thai island of Phuket, I observed local Chinese entering into a trance so that the gods could enter their bodies. They then have their faces pierced by one or even several large swords, set out on a long procession through the town, and not even a drop of blood would seep from their wounds.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyMongolian shaman Zorigtbaatar performs a ritual in his yurt (tent) in the centre of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia – December 4, 2014

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyFriday Prayers in Istiqlal mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia – May 22, 2015

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyKumari – Living Goddess is carried in her chariot through the streets of Patan, Nepal – April 10, 2009

I became an intruder in quiet monastery worlds nestled in Romanian and Ethiopian hills or among the peaks of the Himalayans. I had audiences with living goddesses in the Kathmandu Valley, one of which befriended my wife and me.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyGochak – Buddhist pilgrimage in Ladakh, India – February 25, 2013

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyChinese community celebrates Taoist The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Phuket, Thailand – October 9, 2016

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyJanuary 22, 2018 – Hundreds of Jewish pilgrims have arrived to celebrate yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Tzadik David Biderman to the small Polish town of Lelow.

During wild drinking sprees in small Polish towns with Hasidic Jews, I commemorated the deaths of their miraculous rabbis, and for a couple of days had the feeling that the world of Eastern European Jews that had disappeared forever in the ovens of Auschwitz had once again come to life.

I was a guest of Sufi brotherhoods in the Balkans. When during the Zikr ritual, dozens of men sway rhythmically in a circle and shout out holy verses, the energy that emanates from them sends shivers down my back, just like when Tibetan monks repeat their mantras.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyAugust 13, 2018 – Kalwaria Paclawska pilgrimage, Eastern Poland.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyCoptic Easter celebrations in Cairo, Egypt – April 10, 2015

Many times, I was invited to a feast. I ate sacrificed sheep with Muslims and Hindus. I stuffed myself to bursting with the salmon and caviar of mountain Jews in Azerbaijan, accompanied by much vodka. On the island of Sulawesi, I feasted on freshly sacrificed water buffalo that were supposed to accompany the souls of dead Toraja to Puya (the land of souls). And everywhere people were kind, and like me were unable to understand how someone could kill in the name of faith.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyEaster – Good Friday in San Fratello, Sicily, Italy – April 14, 2017

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyFebruary 11, 2019 – Theyyam ritual in the village of Padannappuram. Theyyam is a popular ritual form of worship in Kerala, India. The people of the North Malabar consider Theyyam itself as a channel to a God and they thus seek blessings from Theyyam.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnySemana Santa (Holy Week) procession in Zamora, Spain – March 22, 2016

No, I didn’t start believing in God, and perhaps on occasion only felt his uncertain presence. I joined no religion, but to be on the safe side, lit a candle everywhere I could – for my Dad and my other ancestors, wherever they may be.

Exposure Magazine_Michal NovotnyJanuary 23, 2018 – Hundreds of Jewish pilgrims have arrived to celebrate yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Tzadik David Biderman to the small Polish town of Lelow.

Michal Novotný

Michal Novotný

Michal is based in Prague, the Czech Republic and his career began at the age of eighteen when he hitchhiked with his camera to the war zone in the former Yugoslavia. Since this time, he has covered major international events and features stories in more than sixty countries.

He has received many national and international awards in several competitions including World Press Photo, Best of Photojournalism and Czech Press Photo. He regularly works on assignment for major international newspapers and magazines. His work has been published in The New York Times, GEO, Time, Stern, DAYS JAPAN, The Atlantic, The Sunday Times Magazine, Focus, L’Expres, L’Equipe, The Wall Street Journal, and El Mundo magazines among others website.

Visit Michal’s website www.michalnovotny.com and his instagram @michalnovotnyphoto 

The article has been edited by our sub-editor Keya Sikdar.

You may also like our other feature

Durga

A study on gender bias and discrimination against widows in India where people worship the Hindu mythological character…

Yee Peng Festival

Perhaps the most magical and most recognizable festival in the Land of Smiles is the Thailand Lantern Festival, locally known…

Floating – Looking for the invisible bond

Dead Sea of Israel was always a refuge for messiahs, zealots, martyrs, kings, and ascetics…

The Bulls Of Fire

The National Pyrotechnic Festival celebrated at Tultepec, Mexico. Every year in March, a psychedelic festival of pyrotechnic games…

Share This