I’m finishing up my interview with photographer Roger Varland, Associate Professor of History and Art at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan. Two years in Kenya and a semester in China have shaped his photography and classroom perspective. He and his wife Deborah, also on the faculty, have taken students on fifteen cross-cultural study tours to countries including Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Costa Rica, and Gautemala.
Roger’s photograph “Night Money” won the Exceptional Merit Award at the 2007 Statewide Fine Arts Competition at the Ella Sharp Museum in Jackson, Michigan. His photographs have been featured in juried exhibitions such as “The Faces of Christ” gallery on the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) website at www.civa.org. Here are a few links to his work:
LeAnne: How has the time you have spent in Kenya, China, and other parts of the world helped to shape your photography?
Roger: Just today in my Photo I class, we were watching a video on the history of photography that explored the classic "Family of Man" exhibit from the 1950s. It talked about the post-WWII shrinking of the world and the leveling of humanity—that more of us were beginning that journey of seeing each other as equals.
Though I had always heard that we are all God's children, it only made sense when I stayed awhile in other parts of the world. It's so easy to think that God speaks English and that the rest of the world needs to have his voice translated. My images in the "Faces of Christ" gallery at CIVA [the links are above] probably come the closest to explaining what my overseas time has done to me and my image making. Beyond the people themselves, it has also made me an amateur anthropologist. This interest in culture, started by overseas observations, has followed me home and fueled my questions about who we are.
In a sense, my nodes project is a cultural inventory. What does the American landscape say about who we are? Is this what it means to be human in the 21st century? Does our landscape give evidence of our connectedness?
Much of my work is about selecting views of the world and holding them up as commentary. Though certainly not always religious subject matter, I work from the assumption of this being God's world and we are his greatest creation. Our imprints on the planet then say something about who we are and indirectly about our relationship to our Creator.
LM: You've touched on this a little but I'd like to hear more about how your faith informs your work and vice versa.
RV: My faith is a starting point that eventually works into a Christian worldview, a lens of sorts. The meanings of what we see and how it all pieces together relies on some sort of meta-narrative, in my case my faith. Coming back the other direction, I think all art, photography included although it has its own unique quirks, has the power to help us see beyond the obvious. My photography has helped me to think more deeply about God's world and how my piece of the puzzle fits in with the other six billion.
The other side of the cycle, work informing faith, happens through the process of learning to see more clearly, to see beneath the surface. In the words of the rearview mirror, "things are not as they appear".
LM: You are associate professor of art/history at Spring Arbor University, a Christian liberal arts university. Do your students struggle with integrating their faith with their art? If so, how do you address that struggle?
RV: Overall, I don't think the art students at Spring Arbor struggle enough with integration. In the interest of helping students avoid an "obligation" to do "Christian" art, it is avoided almost in total as subject matter. Excellence as offering is the mantra, but I want more than a perfect aesthetic. Having said that, I think I'll let it stop there unless you want me to open a can of worms.
At the same time, one exercise I do every term with my Photo I students is to tell them to take a Christian photograph. I explain no details other than I want them to think about it. Of course we get the range from literal to generically symbolic, but it starts some very good discussions about the connections between faith and the visual world.