UPAA Blog 2021-22 #19 - 5/19/22 (photos and text by Cydney Scott) Above: Feb. 2, 2022; Zowie Rico, who is a lunar witch, reads her Tarot and Prism Oracle cards in her apartment. 

Cydney Scott is a UPAA board member, an author of UPAA's DEI paper, and a photojournalist for BU Today at Boston University. She recently completed a long-term photo essay on the diversity of expressions of religion, faith and spirituality among Boston University students. Cydney has written previously on the UPAA blog about storytelling at BU. -Ed.


When it comes to photography, we all know it gives us an opportunity to shoot things we love, and learn about new things.

I was in the student union pre-pandemic when I saw a student enter the Muslim prayer room. It got me curious about what that space inside looked like. From there I thought more about faith and religion at Boston University in general. The school has all walks of life and started out as a religious school. We also have a large School of Theology here. I do not have religious faith in my life. This was a topic I knew little about, and I was interested to learn more and share it with the community in an academic way.

I let the idea percolate until we got to the other side of the worst part of the pandemic. I got started in earnest in October of 2021, and it published in April 2022. It took that long to get it as well-rounded as possible. It’s a tricky time of year because it’s so gray here on Boston during that time, but I did my best to make it work.

This was a piece I knew would run in BU Today, our online news and marketing site. I was actually surprised that I got no (administrative) pushback on it at all. That said, BU having a religious history provided a sort of hook for the project, and the goal was to allow for the subjects to be the writers of their own stories. I’m very lucky in that the bulk of my workload is shooting for BU Today and any needs for the President’s office. These responsibilities are manageable, which allows me to fit projects in with everything else. Jackie Ricciardi and I were actually both working on longer-term projects at the same time. So it just requires communication with the team to ensure everyone is getting done what they need to get done. And do it as well as possible of course.

November 10, 2021; Rabbi Binyomin Abrams (left), studying the Torah with Rafael Kriger in his office. Recently ordained, Abrams meets weekly with several students who have approached him about studying sacred scripts together.

We sent a “call out” on BU Today, asking people to email me what their religion was and what their faith meant to them. Within the first week I had a Roman Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Baptist and a Mormon. I loved that such a wide range of people were interested!  I also learned about religions, like Jainism, that I didn’t know existed. I found Adit Mehta, who is Jain, by searching a listing of religious groups on campus. I found others by connecting with a contact the School of Theology. I met the lunar witch, Zowie Rico (top image of the article), during a shoot long ago, and got back in touch with her once I got going with the faith project.

November 20, 2021; BU Summer Term program manager Jewel Cash, at center, leads the “Devil Slayers” in prayer at Siros Restaurant in Quincy, MA. They are Bianca Martinez, from left, Angel Late, Emmanuella R. Saintil, Cash, Sarah-Angie Desruisseaux, Anne Renelique, and Emmanuelle Renelique. The group, comprised of women from a variety of Christian faiths, meets quarterly in person and weekly via zoom for prayer and Bible study.

Boston is a liberal place for the most part, and I was fascinated to meet people who worship in more conservative religions, and speak openly about that being a challenge for them. One shared that they were “working for change within their flawed church”. Some people shared very dark thoughts – anger towards people who wouldn’t wear masks, for example, and how they “maybe deserved to die”, but how their faith helped them try and be more forgiving to others.

The biggest challenge was getting a variety of images at a time when people were not practicing their faith with others. Religion is such a personal thing, but also gives a sense of community. I couldn’t shoot any of that community really. I had visions of a lively, singing, somewhat raucous church image which never happened. I’m still disappointed about that. Many people, when I brainstormed with them for ideas about how to photograph them, would say that they found their faith everywhere, and often connected with their faith while walking. Well, 18 or so photos of people walking is hardly interesting to look at.

Feb. 24, 2022; A Member of Discernment in the United Church of Christ, Martha Schick lights a candle in Gordon Chapel at Old South Church where she is a Youth and Young Adult Ministry Leader. Schick says she often thinks of loved ones while lighting a candle, sometimes experiencing hardship, sometimes experiencing joy. She thinks of people she has lost, and most recently, she is “thinking of kids in Florida and Texas” where LGBTQIA rights are in jeopardy. “There have been a lot of terrible things happening to the queer community”, said Schick, “and (UCC at Old South Church) has been a place where people have been able to rest and find a home and find safety in.”

I wanted to photograph the little in-between things that reflected people’s faith in their daily life. I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario with Emily Mantz. She is a Christian student who attends a rather famous church in downtown Boston. A church which is closed because of COVID. I met her there anyway and we did a portrait outside. We talked about her faith and she mentioned saying grace over her meals. I joined her in her apartment and when I arrived she said “My roommates are having a study group, so I’m going to eat in my room” From the light, to the “Salty and Lit” banner on her wall, I just love that picture. I shot it in about 15 seconds. 

December 6, 2021; Emily Manz says grace over her dinner in her apartment. “The flag on my wall is a pun about Matthew 5:13 in the Bible. Jesus says we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. …while Jesus is not calling us to be 'salty and lit', my banner is a great conversation starter that allows me to share my faith while also serving as a constant reminder to me about how I should live my life."

Some of the people were comfortable with me being in their space during prayer, like Muhammad Zaman who allowed me to join him for noon prayers. Kayla Marks, who is Jewish and observes shabbat was not comfortable with me photographing her on a Friday at sundown, so we met on a different day of the week at sundown, and made note of it in the caption. 

December 13, 2021; Adit Mehta performs Samayik in his bedroom of his Boston apartment. "Samayik is taking a vow of equanimity and meditating on the true nature of one's soul," said Mehta who performs it during the days of the full moon. Mehta often uses that time to read from Tattvartha Sutra because, he says, “focuses on the basic tenets of Jainism and is accepted by all sects.”

I found it very interesting how excited people were to talk about their faith and religion, but not preach their religion. And in this way it was a project where I simply learned new things while I worked. I’ve had engineers preach to me for forty five minutes straight. That’s something I may have expected from someone who loves their religion, but that was not what I experienced.

November 19, 2021; Swati Gupta photographed in her prayer/meditation space in her Boston home. Gupta is holding a cup made of copper which is considered one of the purest metals with health benefits. Says Gupta, “It is known to purify water to some extent and that has been proven scientifically too. So, in temples, holy water is kept in a copper glass and that water is given to devotees as an offering from God and to treat any ailments.”


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