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Photos of a baptism

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I should say, for those of you who have never attended an Orthodox baptism, that it is quite different from a Catholic one. The idea might be the same but the process differs in a few significant ways.

The Greek Orthodox Church conducts deep water baptism. This means that, unlike Catholic baptisms where the mum holds the baby for the priest to pour water on his/her head, at an Orthodox baptism the infant is immersed in the baptismal font. Before that happens, the priest puts olive oil in the cupped hands of the godparent, then holds the baby above the baptismal font for the godparent to wipe the oil on the baby’s body and then immerses the baby in the font three times. Then, the priest puts the baby in the arms of the godparent, administers a special kind of oil called “miron” and cuts three locks of the baby’s hair.

Compared to the peace and solemnity of a Catholic baptism, the Orthodox process can be somewhat overwhelming, mainly for the baby and but also for the guests, especially if they have not attended an Orthodox baptism before. For the baby, being held by a stranger who suddenly immerses him almost completely in water and not just once but three times, not knowing what is happening or when it is going to end, possibly feeling cold and having oil get in his eyes, the experience is indeed a very intense one. It is no wonder that non-Orthodox guests are often taken aback. I have also found this to be quite difficult to bear sometimes.

Recently, I was invited to photograph the baptism of my friends’, Dimitra and Kostas, kids. The ceremony took place in Cambridge, in a church that hosts Orthodox weddings, baptisms and other sacraments. It is a beautiful place and we were lucky to enjoy a sunny summer day. The family and godparents arrived first at the church. They brought with them the props that they had so carefully chosen and I busied myself with photographing them before they were used. The two babies, dressed in their best clothes, were enjoying their day out of home, obviously unaware of what was going to follow, which made this the best time to take some candid shots of them. Later on, they would be either busy preparing for the process or too exhausted after having taken part in it. I had the chance to take some picture of the babies running around the church or sitting on their parents’ and grandparents’ lap and then it was time for the ceremony to start.

Unfortunately, the baptismal font was at the back of the church, the part that had the least of available natural light. That made it trickier to select the correct combination of settings for the camera, if we also take into account that the babies moved a lot during the immersions, so a fast shutter speed was necessary. Luckily, I had just bought my 24-70mm lens with a constant 2.8 aperture, so I could keep a constant wide aperture and let as much light as possible into the lens. The zoom also helped me to take some close-ups without disturbing the priest or getting in the way of the guests who were watching the ceremony. As I have said in previous articles, in cases like this, when there are a lot of things happening quickly and a lot of movement and action, it is essential for the photographer to know how it is best to set the camera for these circumstances as well as to have practiced using his equipment to the point that it has become second nature. During the sacrament, there is no time to think about settings or fiddle with the buttons till you get them right.

At the end of the ceremony, with the kids dressed into their baptismal outfits and safe into their parents’ arms, the only thing that still needs to be done is to take some group photos before we can call it a day. Baptisms share the joys of a wedding… They are happy family days with lots of joyful moments and smiley faces and kids are always a pleasure to photograph. Even in this somewhat messy and distressing business that an Orthodox baptism is, the joy of life is always apparent and it’s wonderful to experience it and capture it through the lens. Would I do it again? Absolutely!