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From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

How time flies.  Feels like yesterday I was heading out to photograph on Ash Wednesday and now this weekend will be Easter and the beginning of Passover.

This year’s Ash Wednesday was maybe my best ever. For those of you visiting this blog for the first time, this year is my 15th year photographing towards my series Unto Dust, portraits of people that have received ashes on Ash Wednesday in midtown Manhattan. You can catch up on the back story from last year’s post here and more from previous year’s images on my website here.

I am often overwhelmed by the generosity of strangers when I am shooting on the street. That New Yorkers (and some out -of-towners) will stop and allow me the 5-10 minutes it takes to make a picture always astounds me. I was recently moved by Thomas Merton’s “Louisville epiphany” in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: Merton was a practising Trappist monk who one day realized that there is no separate special world of the holy:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers[…]Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts[…]the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed[…]I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

When I read this I was taken aback by how closely his connection to “total strangers” aligns with how I feel towards the people I meet on the street when I am photographing. I think Thomas Merton could have been a street photographer! My hope on this 15th anniversary of my project is that people can look at this work and, regardless of religion, see themselves and their neighbors with more compassion.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

I was accompanied again this year by my friend and photographer Amy Skinner who documented the day. Many thanks to Amy, NPR Picture Show blog and the TIME tumblr blog both for featuring the project last month. And as always I am grateful to the two dozen or so people who were willing subjects this year.

photograph by Amy Skinner

Photograph by Amy Skinner

All images unless otherwise noted © Greg Miller

Waiting for... on TIME Lightbox

I am continuing to shoot on my “Waiting for…” project that was recently featured on Time Lightbox.  I wish you happy shooting or relaxing wherever you are. Happy 4th!

Gioia and I at the drive-in.

Walking back home.

Untitled, 2011 from Ash Wednseday. Photographs by Greg Miller.

Here are the results of my photographing this year’s Ash Wednesday. You can see an edit from previous years here.  I have been photographing this day in midtown Manhattan for 14 years now, but since it’s only one day a year it is a slow process. It’s like I have been shooting for only 14 days. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent in the Catholic calendar (Episcopals do it too), so it’s actually a somber day meant to remind the faithful of their mortality, the inevitability of sin and of the promise of forgiveness. It has always struck me that, when administering ashes, the priest says, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

In case you are wondering, I am not Catholic. I was raised Methodist.  My grandfather was a Methodist minister but died when I was one year old so I don’t remember him.  My grandmother, walking around her kitchen, talked a lot about him and shared their humanist beliefs with me. I believe that much of the way I see the world was shaped there in her kitchen.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that very ordinary people, heading to the train, to work or school, exercise the simple act of wearing their faith for this one day a year.  A very old ritual against the backdrop of modern society.

As a photographer it is something of a ritual for me as well.  When I began the project in 1997, I wasn’t planning on shooting Ash Wednesday but walking around on the street to photograph… anything.  One of those days happened to be Ash Wednesday.  Because of my relative unease with the camera back then, I used to center the subject and have them engage the camera. Now I do anything I can to avoid people posing or looking in the camera.  But for the sake of continuity I return to this way of photographing people, sort of a testimonial portrait, for one day a year.

I am editing the series for book publication in the near future.  I want to thank Amy Skinner from the Guggenheim Foundation for coming with me this year, documenting the day and for being a lovely presence.

Behind the scenes photographs by Amy Skinner