Non Solum: Pictures during Liturgical Celebrations

Another reader writes in:

For the past week or so, I have been perusing peoples’ photos and videos of Triduum liturgies…I’ve found myself wondering about the boundary between experiencing and celebrating liturgy vs. documenting and preserving particular ones…Do parishes/dioceses need to develop policies and make announcements not only about silencing cell phones, but also about taking video of the celebration?

Taking pictures and videos during liturgical celebrations used to be confined to marriages, baptisms, confirmations, first communions, ordinations, and other liturgies which marked once in a lifetime events. Now that almost every phone has a camera and now that Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter have become so pervasive, it is easy to snap a photo or record a video and distribute it to your friends and followers. There is also a social expectation that you do so.

When I go to Mass it is not uncommon for me to see someone with their phone out taking pictures, especially during solemn liturgical seasons. I have also been guilty of snapping a pic here and there in order to record or share my experience with others.

I think there is a time and a place for pictures in the liturgy, but often the person taking the picture can be very distracting. It is also a problem when someone’s participation in the liturgy is mediated through the screen of their cellphone or camera.

Do you think it is okay to take photos and videos during liturgical celebrations? When is it appropriate and when is it not?

Please comment below.

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28 comments

  1. We asked that no one take videos during our wedding (20+ years ago) and had a only photographer in the organ loft who took a couple of photos.

    Meanwhile, an aunt decided to talk a surreptitious video from the first row. I have to say I never noticed what she was up to at the time and that when we recently found it (after her death) even with its odd views of pew and floor and ceiling as she hid the camera, I watched it with my two sons and wept. And perhaps in that moment I told them more about the sacramental nature of marriage than I would have with any conversation or lecture.

    That said, as I stood with my niece as she was confirmed, the lights from the parish-hired videographer standing over the bishop’s shoulder blinding me (and her), I came within a hairsbreadth of interrupting things and asking that the cameras be turned off for at least her anointing.

    1. @Michelle Francl-Donnay – comment #1:
      +1,

      I have captured images on occasion. But I find it easier to do so when I am not “going” to Mass. But on the fringes.

      When my daughter was the 2nd lector at her First Communion, I staged an image of her at the ambo.

      I like to cultivate stories about Mass and tell them often. That’s the best of all.

  2. I am resolutely in the (maybe contrived) of the popular notion of the indigenous peoples on this continent and elsewhere; the mechanical capture of images of persons and events (particularly the sacred) are a detriment and noxious to the ritual and the souls’ well being. Sorry, but it makes cosmic sense to me. Photography/videography seems antithetical to anamnesis, IMO.
    Perhaps that explains why all the documentation of froo-froo at any liturgical site is repugnant to me personally, from whatever cultural compass it represents.

  3. I take pictures or videos of at least one Mass at my parish every Sunday. From the most solemn liturgy at Easter Vigil to the most ordinary Sunday liturgy in ordinary Time. As a result, the parish has a treasury of memories stored in photographs and videos.

    If it weren’t for my videos, hardly anyone would believe a thousand people [could!] fit in our church on Palm Sunday, waving palms and singing “Osana al hijo de David.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XjKXIpm5DE

    My pastor emailed me after viewing some of the Triduum videos:

    “I can always count on you to keep the memories alive. I was just looking at some of the attached YouTube pieces. They are great and fun to watch. While we, as a parish community, can never say that we have arrived or that we have completed our task, these collections allow the viewer to see that we are working on it. No one will ever be able to say that IHM is a parish that is boring or lifeless. I am grateful to you, Vic.

    Msgr. J”

  4. As my parish’s webmaster, I often take pictures at our important liturgies for the slideshow on the front page – to give people a flavor of what goes on at the parish and to document it. I use the same general guidelines I was taught when I was first trained as a liturgical minister:
    1. Never call attention to yourself, so as to distract others
    2. Only move when someone else is moving. Never move during prayers or readings, but before or after.
    3. No matter what else you are doing, make sure you are participating fully in the Mass.

    To achieve this means no flash, and no getting too close to the action or moving others out of the way. It also means I have a lot of photos taken from the same side of the church – the choir area in which I normally sit.

    Timing is also important. I have photos of the empty sanctuary, before Mass starts. From the Easter Vigil, I have wonderful pictures from around the Easter fire, but no pictures of the people with all their candles, because I usually am involved in the chanting of the Exsultet.

    I pick my photo ops – but I never let them get in the way of the Mass itself.

  5. I understand photos somewhat at weddings and in fact, when my wife and I married lo these 42 years ago we had a professional hired for some before and after posed shots. Her younger brother fancied himself a photographer and had his Leica loaded with some fast b & w film (no flash required) and he took unauthorized pictures we didn’t know about. The pro had his car broken into and all of his equipment and the film from our wedding stolen. So, the only pictures we have are the ones her brother surreptitiously took. Like a lot of things that get raised as issues here, it really isn’t as clear cut as we might like it to be. Generally, I would discourage it, but….sometimes The Lord works in mysterious ways.

  6. I understand wanting to preserve memories, but beyond theology of being in community, some of what any service contains is under copyright restrictions, and a church could end up in legal trouble with a video shared on social media, which can run up to $150,000 per infraction. Just a thought.

  7. I have a bee in my bonnet about photographers at Liturgies. Photographers are paid to take photographs not to pay attention or reverence the proceedings, so things can slip out of hand unless there is a heavy foot on the brake, but not so heavy as to spoil the proceedings either. Fortunately we have gifted students in our Catholic school photography club who take photos at the first communions and confirmations and who respect what is going on. Weddings and funerals are another matter (there is a practice of funeral photography in South Africa) with the latter being worse than the former for inappropriate positioning of the photographer/videographer and inappropriate timing. It often takes a lecture before and after the event to get the photographer to understand what is appropriate, if they don’t “get it”, I drop a hint as to who might rather be used as photographer for future events.

    That being said; I watched parts of the Papal Easter Vigil, after I had recovered from doubling up and more over the triduum, and found the solemnity of the entrance of Paschal Candle diminished by the constant and brash bright flashing as the procession wound its way to the sanctuary. On the other hand with the wide views of the increase of the candlelight in the basilica the brash flashes were dimmed by the gently increasing light of the shared paschal flame. I wonder if there is not a metaphor in there somewhere?

  8. Would it help if the photographers wore some sort of liturgical garment and were restricted to certain point in the wedding ceremony or other ceremony?

    From what you all say, the worst problem with photographers is that they distract — they’re always flaring up in and around the sanctuary, and we never know when they’ll pop up..

    Maybe if there were a rule about when photographers might be expected to take pictures it would eliminate somewhat the jack=in-the-box sequence of events that too often happens.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #8:
      Lol…we had in my diocese a photographer for our diocesan newspaper who used to dress in cassock and surplus. Everyone would chuckle when he was taking pictures. He actually stood out more because of it.

      I’m more in line with being discrete and being respectful. As a “pusher” for many a Confirmation, I am always annoyed by family members wanting that closeup shot. It distracts from the solemnity. I prefer having a professional taking pictures for everyone, especially at First Communion’s.

      I personally always talk with photographers and videographers at weddings that I officiate at. 99% of them follow our guidlines. If they don’t, I give them the “look.” After the ceremony I kindly tell them what they were doing wrong and ask them not to do it again. If they do it again at another wedding, once again being reminded of the parish policies beforehand, they are banned. Banishment happened once, and word got around–especially since we averaged between 90~100 weddings a year, and our place was, more or less, part of their livelihood.

  9. I would like to point to the evangelical value of photographing ordinary liturgical celebrations. Religious “nones” are the largest and fastest growing affiliation in my generation and FaceBook is sorta the market place of our day. It is one thing to write about my faith experience there but a photo really connects.

    Still, I recall only taking maybe half a dozen pictures during mass this past year. Off the top of head: One of my daughter, 2 years old at the time, knelling next to mom (finally! for the first time; a photo certainly lasted longer); One of her dancing in the back aisle during a long winded Easter sermon; another of the seasonal banners.

    At the parish I serve as pastor (we are an inter-church family), I generally “stage” a liturgical action after the service. Examples such as imposition of ashes, veneration of the cross. The elderly congregation I serve is quite hesitant to take pictures during worship.

    I have found that sharing these photos with friends and family on FaceBook become conversation starters, teachable moments, and opportunities to share the faith.

    1. @Joel Walkley – comment #9:
      You make an important point. If we are serious about evangelization, including sharing the riches of our rituals with people who weren’t there but could be next year, photography and video/audio recordings can be a very effective means. Not only the official ones taken for the parish newsletter, but the ones taken by people in attendance to share with their friends on social media. I’ve been converted from grumbling about people and their cameras to actually encouraging people that this or that moment would be a good opportunity if they want to take photos.

  10. We have a few general rules, and then everything else is common sense:
    Baptisms and weddings: take all the pictures you want.
    First Communion: no pictures
    Paid photographers (weddings, etc.) are held to stricter standards.

    Otherwise I agree with Joel–it’s important to evangelization. Dozens of people have come to our parish because of our photos on Facebook. And those are only the people we know about. The parish’s communication committee makes sure someone is there to take pictures during Triduum and other major holidays.

  11. Sometimes I will take pictures, but I try to either participate at the Mass or take photos, not both. For example, my parish did tenebrae on the mornings of the triduum (th, fri, sat). I went to one and only took pictures.

  12. Yes, it’s a good thing to move with the culture in matters that aren’t essential. But there are extremes, to put it mildly. You might not believe this story, but here goes. Recently a “grande dame”/business woman/philantropist in New Orleans died. She was apparently a woman of outlandish ego and irrepressible spontaneity. Her wake was held according to her instructions. It was held in a refurbished old movie theatre/auditorium (which she had helped bring back to life), and on the stage there was a leafy garden of potted plants complete with iron bench, on which sat the corpse of the woman, dressed in a very loud dress draped with a three-yard long pink boa, complete with a cigarette in one hand and a flute of champagne in the other. A thousand people attended the wake. Naturally, a picture of this tableau made the front pages of the paper. It was horrible.

    I thought the whole thing was obscene, or maby just barbaric. The irony is that the tableau was about as spontaneous as a . . ., well, you get the idea. Some gestures are self-defeating. Let’s hope so.

  13. Capturing pictures of a wedding, baptism, first communion or papal visit is one thing. But what is it about the nth Sunday in Ordinary Time in a local parish that would prompt someone to (a) snap a photo of it on a cell phone and (b) share it via social media? I’ve never felt that compulsion.

  14. Cameras and photographers have become fairly invisible due to the simple fact that everyone has a camera in her/his pocket.

    I think people have been disturbed more by a priest or minister’s rude treatment of a photographer than by the photographer herself/himself.

    This brings up the side issue of what actually identifies “sacred” activity. Are hushed tones, staid behavior and “proper” decorum really what makes an activity sacred? Is a rite more sacred when everyone is walking around in a trance-like state?

    I’ve been at liturgies such as First Communions and the annual Saint Patrick’s Day mass where there is almost pandemonium in church prior to the entrance procession. In that energy, enthusiasm, and anticipation I see something quite sacred.

    So no, I don’t see cameras and photographers as enemies of the sacred.

  15. Personally I don’t mind if someone in the congregation takes a discreet photo or even a video. It’s a handy way to report liturgical abuses like, say, clown masses.

    What irritates me is this new-fangled fad for priests (sorry, ‘presiders’) to take a quick selfie at the pulpit. “Here’s me introducing the Justice and Peace Ministry team leader!” Give me the N’Orleans philanthropist anyday.

    1. @Tony Phillips – comment #16:
      I’ve taken pictures while presiding; once took a beautiful picture of a father escorting his daughter bride down the aisle … a great picture that I was in the only place to see.

      (Of course nobody was looking in my direction at the time; all eyes were on the bride.)

  16. If done right (respectful, aesthetically pleasing, technically good), photographs and videos of liturgies serve as:

    1. souvenirs for those involved, e.g., the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday
    2. reminders to future liturgy planners of how it was done in the past (and could be done in the future)
    3. audio-visual aids for catechesis, e.g., teaching about the washing of the feet; teaching about the altar of repose; teaching about the Mass

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2Vx6Y-TTjs

    If done well, photographs and videos not only teach ideas but also inspire emotion and action.

  17. off point but seems like a visitor from another blog has a pet peeve about calling presiders what they are…

  18. As the parish social media person where I worship – and liturgical coordinator, I have been asked to take many photos during mass. Typically the photos were taken during Triduum, Christmas, and various special occasions. It is hard to take the photos and be fully present, but then again, it is often hard to do some of the coordinating and be fully present.

    The photos have served to tell quite a story at our parish, so in the end, they have been part of a medium of evangelization and growth for us. It is not about being bigger, it is about opening the door to joy.

    That is my experience anyway, but it can be a mixed bag.

  19. I think the taking of photographs during worship or any ritual is a desacralization of that intense moment. Native American spirituality has a preternatural sensibility of this when they ask tourists to refrain from taking photographs of their rituals and rites. My wife and I visited a Pueblo village in New Mexico at midday. No one was in the village and it eerily seemed like a ghost town. There were signs posted in English and Spanish asking tourists not to even take photos of the village and under no circumstance was any non-Native permitted to enter into the villages sacred space, the kiva. From the Native standpoint, the camera steals a little bit of soul.

    Whenever there are baptisms or first holy communions ( and I’m sure this is true with other sacraments, the presbyters ask families and friends to refrain from camera usage during the Rites. I believe such a request to be legitimate and reasonable. It is a way to evangelize the unchurched and the lapsed to pause and reflect on what is about to happen and, hopefully, regain a sense of the sacred. Such a request also protects the integrity of the celebration of our Rites.

  20. #17 Tony Phillips:
    “What irritates me is this new-fangled fad for priests (sorry, ‘presiders’) to take a quick selfie at the pulpit. “Here’s me introducing the Justice and Peace Ministry team leader!” Give me the N’Orleans philanthropist anyday.”

    Is that actually a thing? That is horrible.

  21. I would outright ban flash during the sacred action. It’s very disturbing to many people. I would also invite people before the sacred action to consider that their actual experience and memory of the experience are far more important than an image of the experience and that they therefore exercise restraint in obtaining photographic tokens of remembrance. Also, suggest that they should wait until after they have slept before looking at the images they have taken, so that their actual memories have a chance to take primary root in their long-term memory instead of photos or videos.

    I was a member of a wedding party in the mid-1980s. There was a videographer and photographer present. After the reception, the wedding party – including the newlyweds – went back to the bride’s house and, to my amazement, watched the video. They started critiquing, and at length. It hit me with force that they were displacing their primary memories with second- and third-order memories. This is more disruptive to our experience than we realize.

  22. Maybe the best thing to do would be to have the altar servers take the photos. It would give them something to do, and kids are better with electric gadgets than grown-ups anyways.

    I was an altar boy when we switched from the vernacular, simplified Tridentine Mass to the Montini/Bugnini rite. Overnight we went from starring roles (well, supporting actors) to unwanted extras. We used to say the confiteor, ring bells, carry patens–suddenly we had nothing to do but stand around like gooseberries. More than a few vocations were lost at that time, I’d say. After a while one of the younger priest felt sorry for us and tried to find ways to get us involved again–hold the book while he read, or march around with a candle. Unfortunately there were no digital cameras back then.

  23. I have come around, to the point where I now wish some parishes would provide a photography ministry with amateur photographers who have reflected on what is appropriate who will take pictures of ritual moments, so that all 20 families of first communicants aren’t all feeling the need to take multiple pictures of the same shot after the mass.

    And when I was only thinking of remembering for myself, I wondered how anyone could want photos of these times, but now that I am remembering my wedding and their baptisms for my children I realize how much it contributes to their sense of their spiritual history.

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