"It was the desire to take one picture."
That's how photographer Lanie McNulty, 45, explains the genesis of her project, "Lifted Up in New York City," which consists of 30 images of people worshipping. She says she was sitting in a church balcony when she saw "a woman with one hand across her heart and one hand in the air, singing her heart out to God. It was stunning. Absolutely beautiful."
"I need to take a picture of that," McNulty said. She obtained permission from the woman and the pastor, but the next week the woman was performing on stage and the intimate moment was gone. Disappointed, McNulty began to look around the church. She describes what she saw: "So much visual manifestation of God working in people's lives. . . . People praising God, and yet God was loving them back. I couldn't believe how real it was."
McNulty began snapping pictures in 2004. Week after week she took photographs of people worshipping-until the pastor kicked her out. By then she knew "this was a worthwhile thing to do," so over the next four years she attended worship services and prayer walks in all five boroughs of New York, taking pictures of what she saw.
McNulty's interest in worship wasn't merely professional. Until February 2002, she was a "liberal Upper Westsider" whose "notions of Christianity were very much shaped by my perspective of the Christian right, which seemed very angry and unloving and decidedly unhip."
She had lived in Manhattan ever since she graduated from Dartmouth, except for a year in Hong Kong and two years in Boston while earning her MBA at Harvard. Over the next two decades she picked up a master's in education. She worked, married, had three children-and all that time in Manhattan, she didn't know anyone who went to church.
When her sister-in-law, Shannon, who was living in London, took the Alpha Course and went on Holy Spirit weekends, McNulty "was shocked and disappointed," but she figured, "maybe she's trying to introduce some morality into her children's lives."
But then McNulty saw her sister-in-law: "There was a subtle but real difference in her. She was not a better person. She still had the same faults, the same edge. And yet there was something really tangibly different . . . she seemed to have a certainty, a peace, a hope. That was something I really craved."
McNulty described what happened next: "When I saw this change in Shannon, all I could think about was if what she said were true, that you could have a personal relationship in this life with Jesus, with God-who answered prayer and guided you-I knew that would turn everything in my life upside down. I swallowed my pride and my prejudices and basically went to Jesus and said I want to know the truth."
Despite McNulty's academic credentials, she wasn't looking for an intellectual defense of God: "I'm smart enough to know the limits of my intelligence. Someone could always make a better intellectual argument for or against God." Instead, she wanted evidences from life, the kinds of things "that others disregard as coincidence, but you know deep down are true."
McNulty was already a professional photographer before she started her Lifted Up series. She'd gone to the International Center for Photography and had a portrait business. Her new direction was a "leap of faith. No way would it have happened if I hadn't found God."
The project was technically difficult. When she began, digital cameras weren't technically advanced enough to make good black-and-white prints. She started shooting her photographs using film and a 35 mm camera. Since she wanted consistency throughout the series, she continued using film even after digital improved in quality. Many of the churches were poorly lit yet she did not want to interrupt by using flash. "I don't use a long lens. I'm really in people's faces, in their space."
Because she didn't want to distract people, she didn't get signed releases at the time she took the photographs. Later on, she had to go back and get the releases signed. It was the "needle in the haystack challenge." Sometimes pastors could identify the people and sometimes not. Once she identified a man, who was not a member of the church where she photographed him, after locating him in a picture on a Harlem community board.
Her regular prayer before heading out to take pictures was Romans 11:36, "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever." She says, "Given the technical difficulties, I am more anxious and more dependent on God. I can so much more give God the glory if anything comes out."
McNulty's black-and-white images, already exhibited in Manhattan and with shows in other boroughs in the works, show people singing or praying and seemingly unaware of the camera. McNulty explained how she was able to capture such intimate glimpses: "They trusted me. . . . I was not taking pictures of 'the other.' I was looking to learn more about my own faith. I was not wanting to make people look odd."
Sometimes, she said, "I would put my camera down and pray with people. . . . I often left these churches crying, totally worn out with that exhaustion that comes from exhilaration when you spend time with God."
McNulty's photography and her life taught her about being a Christian in New York: "I've met people I never would have met before in lots of different communities. I found there were Christians in my kids' school. People are quiet about it here. . . . There are some deep prejudices against Christians, and some of that is Christians' own fault. I have had some extreme reactions. . . . I have a warm spot for those nasty reactions because I was like that. I had a lot of ill-conceived notions of what it meant."
She concluded that "God loves New York City. Heaven is not going to be one way of being, one way of looking. NYC is such a beautiful mix of diverse ways of being: cultures, skin colors, languages, opinions, way to be in life, passions. So Christians fit right in."
And what about the false starts, the erratic career path? "I don't regret any of those false starts and yet having God as a parent, He knows what is best for us. . . . We are so programmed to plan our future. It's limiting. . . . There are so many more opportunities than you can even dream of, even at 45.
. . . I'm not the kind of person who gets easily bored. Life is just way too exciting."
McNulty says people don't take photographs to make money: "You do it for some other purpose as well. The reason I take pictures is to get people to question, to talk, to look at something they haven't seen before."