Babel, the urge to pray by Viviana Peretti

Redeemer Christian Church, a Jehovah's Witness Temple in Brooklyn, New York

Viviana Peretti considers herself a street photographer, yet her latest work, Babel, the urge to pray, takes this one stage further.

Before Peretti came to New York she expected to find a secular and consumer-driven city. "I was really surprised by the rich, diverse, intense religious life present in each neighbourhood and the complex and sometimes complicated implications these different belief systems have for how people live their lives. The number of temples is overwhelming, but so is the media's indifference to this aspect of the city, as is their consistent tendency to sell the world the most glamour-focused, profane vision of New York."

These encounters with different religious groups and the lack of representation of spiritual life in the media began to form in to an idea which has developed in to this ongoing series.

"Maybe because it is assumed that religion is not a topic that appeals to the public, or because it is not an easy subject to 'sell'? Maybe because, at this moment of global religious tensions and confrontations, the relative religious tolerance (or indifference) found in New York City is not considered news. But I think these stories, and how they coexist together, are important and worth exploring."

Babel, the urge to pray focuses on different religions in New York, some practiced by various immigrant communities and others where the majority of the faithful are Americans.

The Old Broadway Synagogue in Harlem The Old Broadway Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Harlem, has held services in the same location since 1923

"In the immigrant communities that I began photographing in 2010 - Hasidic Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, Haitian Vodouists, Hare Krishna, Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox - spirituality represents an element of unity for people that, whether they migrated here fairly recently or many generations ago, still belong to very separate social, linguistic and religious groups.

"New York City is not just a multi ethnic, dynamic, composite metropolis but also a 'Babel' full of enclaves, mainly faith based. For many people in New York, religion represents a source of community and intimacy with their fellows and at the same time an element of separation from the rest of the world that doesn't share their beliefs."

Following research Peretti began to photograph in black and white as Peretti feels that New York is better without the distraction of the colour which makes it look so glamorous and fake, something she describes as the set of a movie devoid of reality.

Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York

"I see New York as a black and white city with its skyscrapers and its people rushing alone between the concrete and pavement of its long, congested avenues. I also find that in the case of this project shooting in black and white helps to give the idea of timeless traditions and beliefs. Finally, I love the grain and tonalities that film has versus the digital files."

The majority of the communities are captured from within, many taking months to complete, though not all, some are over in a couple of days.

Peretti estimates that she has at least a year to go on the project with aims to turn it in to a book and multimedia piece, seeing the addition of text and audio she has collected from the locations as being a way to increase engagement and understanding.

She sees the work as the start of a conversation. "A photograph for me is always a kind of provocation: I hope to create an emotional or rational reaction in the viewer... photographs that leave us indifferent are meaningless."

Here are a few frames from the series with comments by Peretti.

Murid Islamic Community of America is an Islamic non profit organization founded in 1989 and located in Harlem, New York. The Murid Islamic Community of America is located in Harlem and meets at least once a week in a brownstone building not big enough to accommodate everyone
Inside Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Many Italians have left the neighbourhood but still consider Our Lady of Mount Carmel their parish and every Sunday travel to Belmont to attend mass in Italian. Today the benches are full of Mexican immigrants that attend mass in Spanish and have revitalised the parish bringing their own religious figures and merging them with the Roman Catholic ones.
A man prays Jummah is a congregational prayer that Muslims hold every Friday around noontime
The Zen Center of New York City The Zen Center of New York City is one of the few residential Buddhist training centres in the city and represents the metropolitan branch of the Mountains and Rivers Order
Saint Demetrios Cathedral Built in 1927 and located in Queens, Saint Demetrios Cathedral serves one of the country's largest and strongest Hellenic-American communities
Govinda Hare Krishna Temple During a celebration at the Govinda Hare Krishna Temple one of the participant told Viviana, "Our religion is simple. It is about three things: chanting and dancing, food and philosophy. Other religions are too serious, I need colour and joy in my life."
A Mormon service in sign language At the Union Square Second Branch Mormon services and doctrinal lessons are in sign language
A Haitian woman during a vodou ceremony in New York People have many prejudices about Vodou but Peretti found a community deeply tied to its country, ancestors and beliefs. Each celebration is a time for unity and fraternity among Haitians trying to make contact not only with the spirits, but also between themselves, here and now.

You can see more of Viviana Peretti's series Babel, the Urge to Pray on her website and keep up with developments via her blog.

Phil Coomes, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

The photographs that reunited families

The Polaroid photographs that helped reunite families in Rwanda

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    @54.(Woody). You're wrong. The first Celts (the 'Q' Celts) began arriving in the British isles 3,000 to 2,500 BC. The second wave (the 'P' Celts) between 1,500 BC and 500 BC. The Romans didn't invade Britain until between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D. If the Celts (and Picts) are not the indigenous people of Britain then neither can it be said that native Americans are indigenous to America.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Most people who pray usually pray for themselves. I like the comment Hitler was a Catholic. Well Saddam Hussein was a Muslim so on that premise it should follow all the good people are probably atheists. Or if you become bad do you automatically lose your right to believe in 'God'. Most bad people probably believe they are doing (a) gods work anyway!

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Hitler was a catholic/atheist
    Hitler was evil
    Therefore catholicism/atheism is evil

    Is a false argument (Ad Hominem).

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    @52 interesting point about never renouncing Catholicism. This was vital as the 1933 Concordat was essential in allowing him to remove political parties in July of that year including the Catholic centrists, whilst keeping the public and those like Van Papen on his side. I can't say I've kept tabs on Vatican pronouncements post War but they were certainly too compliant before it, I agree!

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    49. woody wrote: "By indidgenous people I'm guessing you mean native Americans in New York and Celts in London?"

    Celts are not indigenous to London. They came to the British Isles with the Legions hot on their tales. I think they had been upsetting the locals in Rome or something ... :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    @ 44 ...Yes, as you pointed out Hitler was probably anti-church as he rarely if ever attended church, but this does not necessarily mean he was anti-christian as you seem to suggest. Admittedly he probably pandered to the Christian vote due culture at the time. His public speeches and Mein Kampf support the notion that his ideology was in part, but not exclusively nor prominently, inspired by god.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    @44 both of us can agree that he wasn't an atheist, that was my main point in the initial comment I made when I was replying to someone who said Hitler, along with Moa and Stalin was in fact was an atheist - which is as we both know factually inaccurate. Moreover, Hitler was baptised a Catholic and he never publicly denounced it nor has the Vatican retrospectively denounced any Nazi's ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    How sad to see the demise of New York. Just like London devoid of its indigenous people."
    Over the last 400 yrs everyone's immigrated to NYC from someplace else, except for the Indians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Amateur quality photographs of a boring subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @47 By indidgenous people I'm guessing you mean native Americans in New York and Celts in London?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    The Church is all God's people. 'The Church' is not an organization. 99.9% (guesstimate) of what passes for Christian is at best religion and at worst idolatry!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    How sad to see the demise of New York. Just like London devoid of its indigenous people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Checking back after a few hours & sure enough it's devolved into the usual fundamentalist-secularists talking about the Stone Age & missing the beauty of the photos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    A brill collection of photos & a great article about a city famed for it's very non-religious life. It would be interesting to see a similar photo article on London. Despite an established church the variety of believers here too is wide. Pity that so many of the comments are not really about the article though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    @42 I didn't refer to the debate about him being an atheist because he wasn't, I'm a historian who just cared about the inaccurate history in your sub points. A: He wasn't a Catholic. B: The idea that he genuinely believed himself to be inspired by God can't be sustained by using Mein Kampf or his speeches because that misunderstands the nature of the way Hiterl used public pronouncements

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    What lovely pictures of 'yet again' a lot of men...and one of a woman under the vodou heading...funny that Religion is not about men, and should not be about gender, but patriarchal rules the religious world with only struggles and hippopcracy for us women

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    @31 *sigh* you totally missed my point. Yes, Hitler may have been anti-church, but neither his public speeches nor Mein Kampf suggest that he was an atheist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    That men of faith go to great lengths to build and maintain their mosques, synagogs, temples, churches and what have you demonstrates one undeniable truth about religion. And that is that it can delude some into believing theirs is the true faith when in fact it is not. In short, religion proves some are deluded. Is it you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Beautiful portal into different cultures within one city. It's intriguing that all of them carry similar emotions and tone though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    32.likas_kid -

    Firstly, atheism isn't a religion and or a belief system. An atheist is quite simply someone who doesn't believe in a god or gods.

    There are around 1600 gods/deities in the world history, how many do you believe in? Does your lack of belief in one mean you hate that religion? Of course not, but it does make you an atheist, I just believe in one less god than some people.


Page 3 of 5



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.