Looking is an act of salvation, of compassion, and it is the path Father Paul Anel has taken in his vocation as a Catholic priest and photographer. His new exhibition, Walls and Light , opening at the First Things gallery this week, brings together ten photographs by Fr. Paul that shed light on the beauty and mystery of ordinary and ephemeral moments in life and nature. Shifting reflections, quiet shadows, moving streams and passing clouds appear as timeless markers of a transient world caught between the infinite and finite, the personal and the universal.

In these works, Fr. Paul approaches his subject”an empty stairwell, an urban commute, or a frosty morning glare”without any agenda except the joyful desire to see the world “with the eyes of Christ,” that is, of compassion and love. Photography embodies the act of looking and in Fr. Paul’s eyes, seeing becomes aspiration, prayer, and praise.

Fr. Paul’s earliest experience with photography came by way of his grandfather while growing up in southwestern France. The elder was an amateur photographer and botanist who always seemed to be taking pictures of the local landscape and flora, and who took delight in photographing his grandchildren. This left a deep and lasting impression on Fr. Paul.

However, it was not until Fr. Paul moved to Brazil in 1998 to begin work at Heart’s Home, a non-profit international Catholic organization committed to promoting a culture of compassion through charitable, cultural, and educational activities, that photography once again became part of his world. Heart’s Home’s emphasis on forming communities of love and prayer with the poor, disadvantaged, and socially isolated brought Fr. Paul close to many suffering people in the favela slums of South America. Yet the rich encounters and bonds of friendship that arose inspired him to use photography as a means of capturing and recording their experiences living in some of the most desperate areas of the world. His aim was not to show their material poverty, but their dignity and beauty.

In a recent interview, Fr. Paul spoke of his desire to see with Christ’s eyes. He said, “I wish to have the attitude of Christ when he looked at people, even the landscape; to see the beauty that is within them.” He explained further, “the act of looking is very personal, subjective, but you can share it [with a photograph], revealing things about a person that others would not be able to see.” Seeing becomes redeeming.

Though people have been the main subject of his photography, Fr. Paul’s most recent body of work reveals an interest in the abstract qualities of light and reflection, particularly on the landscape and urban environment. John Silvis, the curator of the exhibition, saw in these abstract images as much power to speak of the human experience as do his portraits. “They have a rich poetic quality and invite the viewer to spend time to contemplate. There is a certain complexity which takes years of seeing, a complexity of form and an understanding of the visual language as a medium,” says Silvis. This is evident in a color photograph of a stone fence (2009); it is deceptively simple, but a longer view discloses varied layers of natural elements brought into a unifying wholeness by the photographer. Earth, sky, stones, and leaves become the rich layers of reality. A single cloud pauses over the wall.

In Stairwall (2008), the end product of the New York City building code becomes the site for spiritual awakening as light enters and reflects off its prosaic walls and handrail. Light breaking through clouds in Molokai (2010) recalls the hidden beauty behind the once wretched land of leprosy, abandonment, and decay that was transformed into a haven of grace by the holy love and work of a priest, St. Damien (1840-1899). A tree becomes a sign of hope as it pulls toward the light.

Contrasts between light and dark , as well as movement and stillness are important elements in Fr. Paul’s photographs. A train ride through Brooklyn is the occasion for a quick reflection on another ride, a harrowing one on a Coney Island roller coaster. In one photograph two bending, trembling tree limbs awaken to a bright and bleary frosty morning. In another, flashes of light twist through the swaying, sagging overcast sky above the Williamsburg Bridge. And finally, light’s salvific dimensions materialize in Pieta (2008) where a Passion procession in Spain culminates in an image of a mother’s piercing encounter with her crucified Son. Light floods the darkness; her crown glows. Mary becomes the embodiment of compassion.

Fr. Paul’s photographs invite us to contemplate the poetic and symbolic expression of light across surfaces, places and time. In doing this, they suggest subtle ways in which even ‘mundane’ or ‘natural’ life is inescapably charged with grace.

Walls and Light
, curated by John Silvis, will be on view at the First Things Gallery from November 10, 2011 through January 9, 2012.

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Articles by Silvia Espinosa

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