If you’ve been following my blog for much time at all you’ve no doubt seen me mention Sara Lando’s online photography course, The Support Group for Lazy Photographers. As the final assignment in her 12-week course we were given the challenge of recreating an iconic photo but in a way that’s unique to our way of seeing/shooting. I chose to recreate Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.
I had a few of reasons for taking on the controversial image. First of all, I have been a longtime admirer of the image. Though the image title was no doubt intended to get a reaction out of viewers, the image is undeniably striking. If one were to see the image out of context, the fluid could easily be mistaken for amber. I’ve been in love with the image since I first saw it in college, nearly 20 years ago. Secondly, I had already been exploring creating images in Serrano’s Immersions color palette of red and gold for a couple months prior to the assignment, so it seemed in line with how I had been working. Finally (and most importantly), Serrano’s meditation on religion and the human condition has been especially resonating with me these last couple of years since Trump took office.
I was raised in a conservative christian home and my faith stayed with me into my thirties, though it had taken on a slightly less literal form in more recent years. Comparatively, I was taught from grade school that America was not only the most power country in the world, but it was also a heaven-like amalgam of cultures and races, all of whom were given equal opportunity to make their dreams a reality. By the time I was graduating college however, my fundamental perception of the world had began to crack. Certain things I was taught in school and church didn’t line up with what I had now experienced first-hand in the world.
These cracks continued to spread as I became a father and truly experienced fear for the first time. As I faced the thought of what kind of world would be left for my children, neither my bible nor my government gave me the reassurance I sought after. For the first time in my life I was fully aware of all that I had and how easily I could lose everything. My fixation on the fragility of life and mental stability was unceasing.
At the peak of of my faith, had I encountered a person suffering painful affliction for example, or a parent grieving the loss of a child, I likely would have consoled them with a scripture passage about the promise of afterlife and absence of suffering. Or I might have offered them platitudes that everything happens for a reason and how they would get through this trial and be ever the stronger for having endured such tribulation. This was the posture that I learned from my superiors at church and school. I heard the message and watched it acted out for so long that I no longer even thought about what was underlying in the message. What it was at the core was a failure of empathy— a shortcut out of the pain for the listener. It was a formulaic approach to life: Do this plus this plus this and it will equal peace and balance.
An element of my early faith that I found especially damaging as I grew up was the implicit message that nothing really matters here on earth because we’re going to have our true paradise in heaven. After all, why should we concern ourselves with saving the planet if we were going to inherit a new one? On an unconscious level it impacted the way I saw and interacted with the world and the people in it. Meanwhile there was the message conveyed in schools and media that we were steadily progressing as a human race with technological and medical breakthroughs happening left and right. However, as I was receiving these messages from my church and government, I was simultaneously being confronted with images on 9-11, tsunamis, and mass shootings.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the film Idiocracy. If you’re unfamiliar with the Mike Judge film, it’s about a man who is cryogenically frozen for 500 years only to wake up and encounter a degraded country and world where he is (by far) the smartest person alive. In this world the judiciary process includes the use of a monster truck, healthcare can only be won by playing slot machines, law degrees can be attained at Costco, and everyone uses Gatorade to water their crops (It’s got electrolytes!).
This precisely is why I chose Monster energy drink as the immersion liquid for the crucifix in my interpretation of Serrano’s image. If you walk into a convenience store in my neighborhood (lower-middle class), you won’t find anything healthy to eat. Not even a bottle of fruit juice. Energy drinks, sports drinks, and alcohol are apparently three of the five food groups in 2019. If you’re lucky enough to even have a grocery store in your neighborhood (we aren’t), it’s still cheaper to take your family out to dinner at Wendy’s than it is to buy fresh groceries and cook a meal at home. But what sane person would even want to? There are so many shows to watch and games to play and posts to like that convenience has become a currency. We live a culture of the hot take. Fast food. Hashtags. 140 character limits. Everything is packaged, produced, and simplified for immediate consumption, whether the consumer is in the line at McDonald’s or in a pew at church. Slow culture is something for the dissenters and dreamers— not for those actually engaged in society.
Serrano was raised a Catholic. His photo of a crucifix submerged in his urine was not intended to be offensive. He summarized his stance as such: "What it symbolizes is the way Christ died: the blood came out of him but so did the piss and the shit. Maybe if Piss Christ upsets you, it’s because it gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like.*” My re-interpretation of Serrano’s image is meant to be a companion piece to his: if his image begins a dialog about what the Christ in human form may have entailed, my image is a conversation about where I believe we have taken Christ in the two thousands years since he walked the planet.
Though I no longer have my hope in groups, be they of god or government, I still hold on to a few tenets of my old faith. If the Bible is to be believed, Christ would intentionally hang out with the contagiously diseased and social outcasts with no other agenda other than to see them, touch them, and hear them (which was to love them). When I see countercultural love and selflessness like that exhibited these days, I pay attention to it. Needless to say, it doesn’t always come from the church or government. For example, the protestors that are amassing on the Mexican border to reunite kids with their parents; or those who rallied against Trump’s ban on Muslims; or the bystanders in a school shooting who throw themselves between a classmate and a bullet. These are individuals that are recognizing that the life and light and freedom and peace in all of us is at stake when it’s taken away from even one of us.