Photographs, Sacred Spaces & Tourism

Over Christmas while in New York City I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Many city visitors had the same idea, so much so that there was a line, albeit moving, in order to walk into the cathedral. Once inside, I saw the reason for the line: people were everywhere, whether in the aisles, sitting in the pews, marveling at the stained glass windows, gazing at the manger, behind the altar… just everywhere. And these people who were everywhere – they were taking pictures of everything. Flash after flash!

To me, all of those flashing cameras took away from the atmosphere of the cathedral. I visited for the peace and beauty of a cathedral, architecture and otherwise, not necessarily to pray; yet, the noise of the loud tourists and the sight of the flashing cameras were very distracting. All of this made me wonder – is there a time and a place for photographs? Do other people find this disturbing? And does the fact that we live in a digital society give people the right to photograph whatever they want, whenever they want? What do you think?

And what about the issue of visiting a place that is sacred to groups of people? If I were visiting the worship space of another religion, I would hope to be respectful and conduct myself in the proper manner. While in St. Patrick’s Cathedral I overhead a mother say to her son, “Don’t touch the holy water. It’s dirty.” And people were lighting candle after candle, despite the fact that it’s a common practice to donate at least one dollar for each candle lit. And so many people walked behind the altar and everywhere in the church. Regardless of your religion or my religion, it all seemed a bit disrespectful. If you don’t know the customs, perhaps you should ask or at least move through quietly.

Are these the issues that come with a sacred space also being a popular tourist stop? I cannot say that I’ve never taken pictures inside of a church before, but I’d like to bring up the idea for discussion. Historic house museums can say, “No photographs are allowed”, but can other sites? Or are other places too hard to control?

I do not want this to be an issue of church vs. state, secular vs. religious. I mean to bring up photographs and social behavior as a matter for any site. Should there be restrictions on photographs and more education on how to act? Does this apply to religious spaces and historic sites as well? Or should one or the other be considered an everyday space so as to not add to the stigma of dull, quiet museums?

As far as photographs are concerned, people also do not realize that their point-and-shoot automatic digital cameras will never be able to capture the true depth of the architecture and what they can actually see. Maybe we should take time to study with our eyes rather than photographs everything so quickly. Professional photographers can take care of those shots that we would want to gaze at for years to come.

What do you think? Is this another issue to ponder? Or is this something that should be left alone? Thoughts are much appreciated.