Back in time: Using photo archives in your religion reporting

Sitting on the bookshelf or collecting dust on the coffee table, photo albums can sometimes seem a bit outdated. More commonly, photographs take up serious megabytes on our smartphones. Or we carefully curate, edit and circulate them on social media. 

Whether printed and framed or filtered and posted, pictures tell stories.  

A photograph can capture a moment in time while at the same time contain and convey emotional, psychological and affective impact.

From world-changing events to otherwise mundane moments of devotion or meditation, pictures tell religion stories too.

Writing about religion photography and the work of TED Fellow Monika Bulaj, Patrick D’Arcy chronicled how the Polish photographer captured images from “Christians and Muslims in Syria; Hasids in Israel; Vodouists in Haiti; Buddhist monks in Tibet; and Sufi mystics in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Iran and other countries.”

These photos, he wrote, do much more than chronicle global religious traditions; they also reveal something about what it means to be human. They tell us about who we are, what we believe, what we consider sacred, how we worship, where we worship and who we do it with. 

It is the power of photos, and their particular import when considering religion around the world and across time, that makes the Presbyterian Historical Society’s archive of Religious News Service (now known as Religion News Service, or RNS) photographs so rich and valuable. 

Containing some 227 cubic feet — or 227 boxes — of photos, the archives include news releases, photographic prints and negatives, press clippings, articles as well as other materials produced and/or disseminated by the Religious News Service between 1945-1982. 

The records document the histories of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox religion in the United States and around the world over the course of some five decades. Including chronicles of the “purely religious” activities of religious groups and personalities — gatherings, conferences, public speaking engagements, mergers, programs, institutions and the like — the archive also illustrates the intersections of religion and politics, society and culture, both in the United States and abroad. 

“Additionally,” said Nancy J. Taylor, executive director of the PHS, “the collection itself stands as a marker of the media’s representation of 20th-century American religious beliefs, values and practices.”

PHS archivists welcome researchers interested in American religious history; the relationship between religion and U.S. politics, society and culture; or the media’s representation of religion in the 20th century to explore the collection. At the same time, they also recognize the archives serve as excellent fodder for religion newswriters. 

Taylor said,

The historic photographs can set a scene, convey an emotion, and draw in a contemporary audience very effectively. They can also be used with current images to compare and contrast mid-20th-century perspectives and aesthetics with contemporary ones. Clothing styles aside, I’m often amazed at how interchangeable some of the photos are that depict social justice marches, war refugees or hunger ministries. But the RNS photos and the reporting they supported are also very much a product of their time, and they help us really “see” how that past continues to shape the present and inform the future.

In this special edition of ReligionLink, we explore the collection, highlight a few photographs along the way, and provide some tips and helpful resources for how to understand, use and appreciate the photo archive and its expanding digital collection. 

The RNS photo archive

A group of demonstrators from Hineni, a national Jewish women's organization, demonstrates near the White House in support of Israel during the recent visit from Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

When RNS national reporter Adelle M. Banks wanted to provide some historical context to the now landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court case, she turned to the RNS photo archive. What she found was a slew of photos from the 1960s and ’70s that richly illustrated the context of the debate around the decision that Dobbs v. Jackson overturned — Roe v. Wade. 

Based on her perusal of archive photos, Banks wrote, 

“the lead-up to the Roe decision hardly happened in a vacuum. Even as Roe made its way through the judicial system, faith leaders on both sides of the issue bluntly advocated for and opposed the procedure, arguing over definitions of what might be legalized. Politicians of faith meanwhile debated the controversial procedure just as fiercely.”

Historic photos, like the ones in the RNS photo archive, not only provide context, they can convey emotions and set a scene. 

As Taylor said, “They can also be used with current images to compare and contrast mid-20th-century perspectives and aesthetics with contemporary ones,” like with Banks’ reporting. 

“Clothing styles aside, I’m often amazed at how interchangeable some of the photos are that depict social justice marches, war refugees or hunger ministries,” she said, “but the RNS photos and the reporting they supported are also very much a product of their time, and they help us really ‘see’ how that past continues to shape the present and inform the future.” 

The trouble is, reporters can find it difficult to access archives, even if they are available. According to a 2019 report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, most news outlets do not have adequate archives, have few resources for digitizing them and have not given much thought to preserving their digital content or “saving a holistic record” of what they produce. This has led to what the Tow Center called a “dire state” for news archives in the digital age. 

Given this context, the RNS photo collection is a treasure trove of candid images, staged shots and photojournalistic captures of a diverse array of faith traditions in the U.S. and around the world. The photos showcase the interplay of religion, domestic politics and foreign affairs in a diverse array of periods and contexts, from post-World War II Europe to the emergence of the religious right, the conflict in Northern Ireland to the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. 

Amid the collection are some particularly compelling images, said PHS staff, which “deliver news through the experiences of relatively unknown individuals.” Whether it is a girl from Michigan carrying a “Food for Selma” box,  a Muslim refugee family from Albania arriving in New York in 1954a female street-corner preacher on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a U.S. solder in Vietnam with a New Testament tucked into his helmet or a coalition of Indigenous people gathering in California to march to Washington, D.C., in 1978, these images provide rich, everyday snapshots of the intersection of religion, politics and public life. 

Tips for using photo archives in your reporting

A young Palestinian woman does a needlework project at a World Council of Churches (WCC) home economics class.

Photos from the RNS archive have been used by media groups, scholars and the general public to understand themes and trends in American religion over the years, even featuring in reports and documentaries broadcast by PBS NewsHour or NBC News.

While photos can be reliable sources, they need context and provenance to serve as reliable interlocutors.

Using archival photos for your research and reporting offers both benefits and challenges. Photos provide quick information about people, places, objects and events that are sometimes difficult to get across in a written medium. More intimately than words, photos capture the details of everyday life and can evoke powerful memories and emotions. But photos may not always provide the contextual information you desire or require, may reflect the bias of the photographer and therefore must be studied in the context of other evidence and information.

The tips below are meant to help you explore the archive and perhaps use the images in your own stories. 

  1. Visit the Presbyterian Historical Society’s “Guide to the Religious News Service Photographs” to get an overview of the collection or follow the collection on Instagram.
  2. Search the collection. Some content is full-text searchable, allowing you to enter words pertinent to your research (such as names or terms) into a search box and then search the document to see whether instances of those words appear. Others may be more difficult to find and require more refined searching skills. If all else fails, contact the PHS staff.
  3. Take notes. Whip out the ol’ steno pad and take notes of what you notice in the photo at first glance and what questions you still have. First impressions will help guide your reporting later on. Then, take a deeper look and pay attention to what is in the photo, what is not and contextual details that can act as clues for the next step in the process.
  4. Interrogate the photo and ask questions of it, just like you would an interviewee. Here are some suggested questions from the Minnesota Historical Society:
    • What do you already know about the photo?
      • Photographer?
      • Location?
      • Date?
      • Caption or other written description?
    • Look at the entire photograph
      • What is the subject matter? (Portrait, building, event, etc.)
      • What is happening in the photo?
    • Look at individual parts of the photograph
      • What is in the foreground? The background?
      • Where is your eye drawn first?  What less obvious things do you notice?
      • Examine people, objects, signage, setting, time, etc.
    • What does the photo say to you? To others?
      • Are the people in the photo expressing certain emotions?
      • Does it evoke certain emotions in the viewer?
    • Why was the photograph taken and who is the audience?
      • For a documentary or journalism purpose?
      • For sale (as a postcard, poster, etc.)?
      • To advertise something?
      • As an artistic expression?
    • What decisions did the photographer make when taking this picture?
      • Is it posed?
      • Why did they take the photo at that exact moment?  What happened right before the photo was taken?  Right after?
      • Did the photographer make the choices they did (perspective, focus, angles, etc.)?
      • Was the photo edited, cropped or colorized?  What did that change?
    • What questions do you have after viewing the photo?
  5. Consult books, bibliographies and works-cited sections in books on the subject of the photo. There is a wealth of contextual information you can discover through further reading.
  6. Reach out to experts on the subject. ReligionLink has a wealth of sources to consult on a variety of topics. Use the search fields on our home page to find an expert source on the topic you’re exploring in the photo archive. For example, looking for an expert to help you flesh out a story on American Buddhism’s historical development in the U.S.? Simply enter “Buddhism” into the “Search” field and select “Sources” from Resource Type menu. Further refine your search by selecting a particular faith, subject or region.
  7. Look for additional websites dedicated to your topic. What resources, sources and further archives do they mention? What contextual information might you be able to glean from them?
  8. Ask: Is there more than meets the eye? When perusing digital collections online it can sometimes be the case that the item(s) you are viewing only represent a small portion of a larger collection. Many archives digitize materials (photographs, meeting minutes, reports, letters, audiovisual recordings, etc.) from their collections and make them available on their websites. Examine the archive’s website, catalogs, databases and finding aids to see whether links to digital collections exist.
  9. Digital collections may only be a portion of total holdings. There often are many nondigitized materials held in the same archive repository that are also relevant to your research. Search holdings listings carefully and ask the archival staff for assistance in accessing nondigitized content. And, of course, follow applicable copyright and citation rules if you want to use a photo in your story.
  10. Span the horizons between the story in the past and the story you are working on today. Whether it be police officers joining a 1980 Washington for Jesus rally or religious actors helping settle refugees, there are numerous connections, contextual clues and comparisons to discover in the archives. Historical photos can help add historical depth and a sense of continuity to a story with a hot headline.

Other photo archives and resources

The King and Queen of Ruanda Urundi were received in audience by the Holy Father who presented the Catholic monarchs with religious medals and a precious rosary. Photo shows the Pope posing with the sovereigns.

The following collections, archives, and searchable databases are worth a look as well. Again, be sure to check applicable copyright and citation regulations before sharing, posting, or reproducing any photos included in the resources below: