Seminar Series with Thomas Brauer

Vicar of Sumner-Redcliffs

From Portraits of Absence to Analogies of Resurrection: A Theological Phenomenology of the Photograph


Thursdays 15, 22 March, 5, 12 April

12:30 pm to 2 pm at Theology House

Level 1, 10 Logistics Drive, Harewood, Christchurch


Session 1: What do photographs do for us? The experience of the photograph.


Session 2: When photographs go bad. Understanding photography and violence.


Session 3: How do photographs feel? Human emotion in photographs and theology.


Session 4: Doing theology with photographs


Bring your lunch to munch through this engaging series of topics. Let us know you are coming so we can supply tea/coffee for you, email Claire at


Abstract relating to the four seminars – the seminars convey key aspects of Thomas Brauer’s current doctoral research

From Portraits of Absence to Analogies of Resurrection: A Theological Phenomenology of the Photograph

Thomas Brauer | Thesis Abstract

While Christian theologians have considered in some depth more established forms of artistic expression (e.g. painting, sculpture, theatre, etc.), very little theological attention has been paid to photography, with only a few notable exceptions, despite photography’s rapid growth and its social and political importance. This thesis begins to address that gap by re-examining the dominant photographic phenomenology from a Christian theological perspective and proposing a methodology for reading photographs within theological and religious contexts.

In the first section of this thesis, I engage significant literature from photo-criticism. I address hermeneutical challenges within photography that are raised through the critical examination of the dominant ‘forensic’ phenomenology of the photograph from a theological perspective. These challenges include the photograph’s connection to objectification and death as described by Roland Barthes, and the relationship between the camera and violence as described by Susan Sontag. I also explore the less commonly identified challenge of the photograph’s relationship to sentimentality. These are explored across three chapters and results in the proposal of a new phenomenological understanding of the photograph; one which is sacramental in nature (i.e. understanding the photograph’s potential to bear ‘a certain resemblance to the sacraments’ and to permit ‘spiritual effects’) and which flows from photography’s anamnetic characteristics (i.e. characteristics which allow one to re-collect an event of the past in a way which makes the benefits of that event effective in the present). It is through the anamnetic property of the photograph that the sacramental experience is permitted; the recollection of the past and the experience of its benefits permit an encounter with the referent that might be reminiscent of the resurrection. By exploring the anamnetic properties and sacramental potential of the photograph, new insights into the photographic experience as one which reflects the resurrection, builds solidarity and compassion, and which develops emotional intelligence are presented.

In the second section of the thesis, I apply a method of theologically reading photographs developed from the proposed phenomenology to three pictures; one amateur snap-shot photograph (the most common form of photograph), and two documentary photographs, one each from Diane Arbus and Sebastião Salgado.

The theoretical and practical components of this thesis, when taken in combination, demonstrate that reading photographs theologically according to the methodology I propose can allow for novel discussion and insights within theological contexts including biblical studies, homiletics, and studies in ethics and theodicy. Similarly, this way of reading photographs can also allow more robust and productive engagements with theological themes in art-critical contexts. Throughout, I also demonstrate how the proposed phenomenology and method can be of value in atheistic or non-Christian readings of photographs.