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 Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    @18Stu N.

    "motivated by their religion to do good when they otherwise wouldn't consider it"

    Doesn't say a lot for these people that they have to be motivated by religion in order to do good!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    @ 90 Corey, the point about the religious right is true. The mix between religion and nationalism is often repeated and invariably harmful. National Socialism was certainly supported by many Christians who encouraged just this mixture and saw it as their Christian duty to do so. I do wonder however sections of Ericksen you could point me towards that indicate Hitler himself was a Christian

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    23:St. Martin of Tours who opposed the execution was canonized. Berengarius of Tours was brought up 5 times on the same heresy and was never tortured, much less killed. He denied what he believed and then went back to preaching it again, and eventually died a faithful Catholic. In the 12th or 13th century, I forget which, the Church & Empire agreed that heretics were to be turned over to the state

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Why is anybody talking about Hitlers religion, I cant think of anything significant he did that could remotely be described as religious. The man was a raving nutter

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    17:David H:Unless you include atheism as a religion, you are talking hundreds of thousands over 40 centuries. You only get into the hundreds of millions in the 20th century by adding up Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Most earlier wars were over territory, not God.

    23:Weare Just Universaldust:Priscillian was the 1st person executed by Christians for his faith (385). cont.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Hispanics are mostly Roman Catholic, and therefore aren't merging their religious figures with Roman Catholic ones. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas, all of the Americas, according to Rome. Different nationalities have different traditions and focus on saints who did something important in their native country, but they are all Roman Catholic saints. Catholic means universal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    It looks like the anti-religious bigots have either gotten bored or moved on, so we can respectfully discuss religion (whether we ourselves are religious or not). I will say I admire atheists who, rather than dwelling on past wrongdoing and expressing intolerance and hate, work to better understand human nature and do their part to make our society more loving, just, truthful, and peaceful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    And how many hold ligitimate / illeagal fire arms etc....well I hope your diverse culture does not come back to haunt you with diffrent kinds of pictures with a dash of colour!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    @WOODY: Hitler was actually a conservative Christian. See 'Theologians Under Hitler'. For similar behaviors, see the conservative Christians movement in the USA, sometimes call the "Religious Right", or more currently the Republican party and/or Tea Party. They say the same things Hitler and his cohorts did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    @53 if you are genuinely interested then reading Goebbels diaries gives examples of Hitler's private pronouncements displaying his anti-Christian beliefs. Speer also quite clearly explains that Hitler instructed leading Nazis to stay in Churches and refused to renounce his own Catholicism as an act of political expediency. Public pronouncements are for obvious reasons less reliable source evidence

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    @83. John. I'm noticing this more and more as well. Sometimes the BBC News website homepage appears to be an American news site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    @75.A.D. You are very poorly informed. In actuality, many practices (and beliefs) of druidry survived in Pagan rituals and communities after being pushed underground by christianity. It was easy for them to survive because the essence of the religion is based upon the natural world - something that can not be NOT true. Like I said, understand druidry and you will know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    @81. philjer

    I'm not better than you, I'm a sinner, saved by Grace. I do however know, that all men have broken God's law and Christ is the only way of salvation. I accept that there are many religions, but I cannot 'tolerate' them, as far as telling people that they have their way and I have mine, as that would be as bad as murdering them. If they reject what I tell them, then so be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    ~ "Christians have over 33,000 different denominations - who knows which one (if any) is the right one...? " ~

    None of them are the 'right' one. As I said in my earlier post, the people are the Church, men have made denominations. The Bible teaches that believers are to gather to the name of Christ, but men (Christian by name only) have corrupted the truth. Especially Rome/CofE/Anglican, etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    #32 "irrational hatred of the religious beliefs of others". If you have to choose between dismissing all but one religions or all religions, atheism makes far more sense. Religions inflict their unchallengeable opinions (which haven't stood the test of time and greater knowledge) on others - those people have a right to answer back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Why do we have so many American news topics that have nothing to do with anything that is happening in the UK on the main news page.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I agree with 75 In my experience the celebration and acknowledgement of changing seasons and transience of being that are part of Wiccan and Druidic ritual are joyful and many of those who follow that path are loving gentle people. Books like The Golden Bough claimed continuity for the Druidic system and appear credible but there is little solid evidence and a lot of romantic wishful thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Religions are ok if all those who follow them, respect the rights of others not to share their views. It's religious bigots and supremists who think that their religion makes themselves better than others and then take action against others in pursuit of their beliefs or folklore. Fine by me if they think their better than me, but don't think that gives them the right to take my home and land away

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.


    "Druidry has so many breakaway faction groups that it is quite difficult to know what any Druid is"

    That sounds very familiar - Christians have over 33,000 different denominations - who knows which one (if any) is the right one...?

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Worst bbc story ever, focus on sorting out your terrible corruption and sleaze before poking holes in new york which is a fine city, no thanks to the bbc


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