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September/October 2012

Fernando Moleres, best known for his work on social issues such as sweated labour and children in prison, is a self-confessed "total atheist". So why did he spend more than three years travelling the world to capture images of men and women of faith?

"I was looking for spirituality, which isn't the same thing as religion," he says. "And it was a moment in my personal life when I needed space and time to reflect." So off he went to places where faith still burns like a candle in the night of what he sees as an increasingly consumerist and ego-obsessed society.

Moleres was drawn in particular to monastic communities, and to other believers who opt to live apart from the world. In 2001 he spent time in Ethiopia, with its remote rock-hewn churches tended by monks whose ancient form of worship carries echoes of the first Christians. He took up the search again in 2006, wandering through some of the less accessible parts of Europe and the Middle East. He once lay hidden in a church for three hours listening to Gregorian chant. It was "an indescribable internal voyage".

Almost all his visits were unprogrammed and unannounced. One was to the Geghard monastery in Armenia, with its churches carved out of rock, another to Jerusalem at Easter. Among the things that most interested him was the way monastic communities actually live. "They are the only collective that deliberately goes against the modern consumerist current," Moleres argues. A typical smaller monastery will consume hardly anything.

But spirituality can also be found in all sorts of places that have nothing to do with organised monasticism. In the Mokattam district of Cairo, Nageh Marzok, a church helper who is heavily tattooed with symbols of his Coptic Christian faith, told Moleres he was sending a message to Muslims: "I am an Egyptian Copt". "Everyone needs to belong to a group," Moleres says. "Even anchorites in the desert who can't actually live in a group keep belonging to one." Shia Muslims in Iran mourn the death of their Imam Hussain. In India the ultimate ascetics, the Naga sadhus, process to the Ganges for their holy ablutions at one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, the Ardh Kumbh Mela.

These are pictures of people, not grand landscapes or edgy urban geometry. Figures are thrown into relief by light. It could be read as standing for the devotion they exude, but Moleres himself shies away from symbolism. "It's the humanist side of things that gets me going," he says. "People are my central focus."

Two qualities inspire photojournalism, he argues—curiosity and engagement. He has plenty of both. Engagement came almost as a birthright. Born in 1963 in Bilbao, he grew up in the Basque Country at a time when it was being torn apart by political unrest. "Seeing this struggle every time you leave the house affects you, it makes you get involved with big themes." And it was curiosity that drove him to travel as a young man. Earning his way as a nurse, working on a boat, in a circus or on construction sites, he went to Venezuela, Canada and Nicaragua in the Sandinista era, among other places.

He took a camera with him, and it was in South Africa in 1990, where he saw life in the segregated townships and children breaking their backs harvesting sugarcane, that his holiday snaps turned into published photography. A mission and a prize-winning career were born. Was he altered by following in the footsteps of the faithful? There were no grand revelations, but he says he was struck by the simplicity and self-effacement of the devout. Eastern devotion seems to resonate more with him than Western: the pursuit of a still centre within oneself, rather than the search for God.

There could be a tension between the desire to cultivate an inner equilibrium and the resolve to right the world's wrongs, as Moleres has returned to doing since he completed his spiritual tour d'horizon. Not really, he says. If you are confused, you are no good to the people around you. To help others, you must first help yourself. These pictures are steps along that road. ~ MERRIL STEVENSON

ALLAHABAD, INDIA
A Naga sadhu rests in his tent during the Ardh Kumbh Mela. Considered saints, Nagas are the strictest sect of sadhu (Hindu ascetics). The Ardh pilgrimage, one of the world’s largest gatherings, occurs every six years in Allahabad, where the holy Ganges and Yamuna rivers converge. It is believed that they are joined by a third, mystical river, the Saraswati

ALLAHABAD, INDIA
Pilgrims dry their saris after bathing in the holy waters during the Ardh Kumbh Mela

PECHORY, RUSSIA
Kirill, a Russian Orthodox monk in his 60s, at the Pskovo-Pechersky monastery, the oldest in Russia. It was one of the few religious centres to stay open throughout the Soviet era

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL
Ethiopian pilgrims pray at the monastery of Deir al-Sultan, built over 1,000 years ago on the roof above the church of the Holy Sepulchre

JERUSALEM
Pilgrims and monks hold candles during the Miracle of the Holy Light in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the Saturday before Orthodox Easter, a spontaneous fire representing the resurrection of Christ is thought to appear and worshippers light their candles from its flame

KOTAYK, ARMENIA
The Geghard monastery is named after the spear that a Roman soldier used to pierce Christ's side during his crucifixion. Founded in the 4th century AD, it is partially carved out of the adjacent mountain 

CAIRO, EGYPT
Nageh Marzok, who helps in a church in the Coptic quarter of Cairo known as Mokattam, shows his tattoos as a sign of his faith

ABUNA ARON, ETHIOPIA
Monks read the Bible at noon, when the sunlight shines through the hole in the roof of this church carved out of rock

KHORRAMABAD, IRAN
On the Day of Ashura, men cover themselves in mud in a ritual known as Kharrah Mali. Shia Muslims all over the world mourn the slaying of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar

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