A photographer reflects on his former religious life through old photographs

Photos: Greg Reynolds / Interview: PERISCOPE

Greg Reynolds used to be a devout Christian who believed that smoking, drinking and having sex before marriage were sinful. Fast forward 40 something years: he is a Brooklyn-based photographer who is openly gay.  Recently, he found a box of photographs he took when he was a member of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical student movement that boasted affiliated chapters at over 500 colleges and universities across the U.S.  He edited these photographs and published them in a zine titled “Jesus Days.”

You stumbled upon a box of photos from another lifetime.  What went through your mind when you first found them?
The dusty boxes of slides that I found in a closet in my parent's house were truly from another lifetime.  More than thirty years had passed since I took those photos, and my life today as a gay man working in the visual arts seemed to have no connection to the life of my younger self I saw reflected back to me from these old pictures. I looked back upon those years of 1978 to 1983 with some embarrassment and awkwardness, but the passing decades have now allowed me to see them again with an emotional distance and fresh perspective I hadn’t had before.
What made you decide to put a zine together?
The pictures that I made during my twenties while working as a Youth Minister for a conservative Christian organization were the pictures that I had to make and the pictures that I wanted to make.  These photos were not made to impress anyone, but rather for my own pleasure.  I had no desire to become a photographer and no plan to publish these photos as a book.
As I began to look at the photographs again today, I realized that some were quite strong, and I wondered to myself whether anyone else would find them interesting.  When I showed them around I discovered that the response was much greater than I had ever anticipated.  It was then that I began to consider working toward publishing a book, with the first step being to create an artist zine to introduce the work to others.  It is my hope to give voice today to that young man who had no voice.
Later you found out you were gay. What is your association with your former religion?
I still have a belief in God, but I have little association today with my former religion.  I grew up Southern Baptist.  Evangelical Christianity is a faith-based religion and much of that faith is emotionally rather than intellectually driven.  As a boy and young man, I responded emotionally to my religion.  Religion for me is very similar to art, the impulse to create comes from deep within people.  The passion that some direct towards religion, others direct towards art.  When I acknowledged and accepted that I was gay, my faith shattered like a wine glass on a marble floor.  My religion had told me that if I had enough faith and if I prayed to God, then God would change me from being gay to being straight.  But my sexual orientation never changed, and I concluded that either God had no power to change me or that he preferred to leave me in my misery (as if my struggle would make me a better person).  Evangelical Christianity teaches that to become a Christian you must be “born again”, letting the old life die and embracing a new life in Christ.  When my former supervisor and boss from my ‘Jesus Days’ told me that I must “crucify my homosexual nature”, I responded that if I were to crucify my homosexual nature, then I would have to kill myself.  
What significance would this book play for the audience in your mind?
I believe that the significance of this book will vary according to the viewer/reader.  Some will respond to the strength of the photographs, while others will react to the ambiance and look of the late 70s and early 80s, while yet others will connect to the story.   I have received many emails from those who suffered similar travails during their youth, and I believe that there are young people today from religious backgrounds who are dealing with the same problems.
Your subjects often appear to have a sense of beauty and youth. Could you tell us more about the subjects you find yourself drawn to?
I am very drawn to beauty, but I am very aware that true beauty lies below the surface.  Perhaps because of my religious background, I am very curious about the interior life of my subjects.  For the last twenty years, I have photographed my family in Kentucky, turning my lens on my youngest nephews and niece as they moved from childhood into adolescence and now young adulthood.  I want my pictures to give them a better understanding of who they are by seeing themselves at such a young age.  I wish I had such a record for myself.
How do you think these photos fit into your development as a person and artist?
The photographs from ‘Jesus Days’ have allowed me to view myself as a young man with much more sympathy.  As I study these pictures, I want to achieve again the same level of unselfconsciousness that I had during my twenties.  I want to make pictures again like those I took back in the 70s and early 80s.


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