Sage grass whispers photographer's path

Boys from Bujumbura, Burundi, take a dip at sunset in Lake Tanganyika.


Boys from Bujumbura, Burundi, take a dip at sunset in Lake Tanganyika.

May 27, 2013

It's easy for Jesuits to say (as they do), "Find God in all things." It's harder to photograph God in all things. Award-winning Jesuit photojournalist Father Don Doll never took that challenge lightly.

A couple of years into his career as a photographer, Doll was convinced he had not yet made a decent photograph.

As a Jesuit teaching school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in North Dakota, Doll had already struggled through philosophy studies (in those days, all in Latin) and was looking forward to four years of theology leading to ordination. He started to ask himself where he was going.

"I was going to give up photography," Doll said.

But before making a decision, he went for a walk on the prairie.

"There was the sage grass and you could just smell it in the air, and it was a cool November evening," recalled Doll in a recent conversation. "I was looking around and saying, 'What am I going to do as a Jesuit?' It was my third year of regency (a period of on-the-job training that is part of the long Jesuit formation process).

"I had a horrible experience in philosophy. . . . That walk on the prairie was the pivotal thing. I was looking around the community thinking, what do I want to do?"

A walk on the prairie with a question for company is a very Jesuit thing to do. Eventually, Doll sensed an answer.


"It was like a voice inside saying, 'Hey, this is the first thing you've really loved doing. Stay with photography. Stay with the first thing you loved. And don't worry,' " said Doll.

May 29, as the Contact Photography Festival is winding up in Toronto, Doll will be at St. James (Anglican) Cathedral to talk about his 50-year career in photography. But he's not going to talk about cameras, lenses, depth of field or the rule of thirds. When Doll starts talking photography he ends up talking about the Jesuit art of discernment.

Part of the Provincial's Lecture Series in support of the Jesuits of English Canada, Doll will show photographs from his 1976 landmark book about village life among the Lakota people, Crying for a Vision.


But he plans to continue through his work for National Geographic magazine and on eight different Day in the Life books for HarperCollins, plus his current work in support of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has taken him to Sri Lanka, Darfur, Rwanda and more.

For $150, admission to Doll's lecture will net you a tax receipt for a charitable donation, a signed copy of his latest book A Call to Vision: A Jesuit's Perspective on the World and a lesson in the discernment of spirits.

What strikes the viewer in looking at Doll's photographs is "his deep commitment to humanity," said Stephen Bulger, founder of one of Canada's most important art galleries dedicated to photography.


"For a lot of us, what separates good photographs from great photographs is the difference between looking and telling," said Bulger. "Most amateurs never get beyond looking at things and photographing them. People like Father Doll are able to actually tell us something about ourselves, as well as the people he is photographing - which is quite a skill."

While any single photograph may be about extracting a fraction of a second out of the flow of time, Doll's photographs are the result of weeks, months, even years spent with the people he is photographing.

It requires his sustained attention on what people are doing and how they are living. That kind of attention and patience has become rare in the Internet age.

Doll sees in the Internet "the globalization of superficiality."

"It's the responsibility of the Jesuits to get deeper, beyond that," Doll said.