Several years ago I made my first trip to a small plot of land in the Mohave Desert where a woman named Maria Paula had been having monthly visions of the Virgin Mary. Over the years I made dozens of trips to photograph the vision events, rituals, and pilgrims who looked to Maria Paula as Maria Paula looked to the sky - and became fascinated by the slippery role that photographs played in the community Maria Paula had cultivated.
While the visionary conveyed messages from the Virgin, pilgrims pointed their cameras toward the sun, hoping to capture evidence that the Virgin was nearby. Over time, they developed a lexicon of meaning for the thin, dim impressions left on polaroids, pocket cameras, and cell phones. The over/under exposure of a polaroid photograph made by pointing the camera directly toward the sun might be the gates of heaven; a lens flare might be the Virgin herself. Long-term members of the community helped newcomers interpret and understand their images, and the visionary directed them about when and where the Virgin lingered.
On a late November morning a few years ago Maria Paula interrupted her monologue to announce that the Virgin was nearby. As some pilgrims wept others quickly began taking pictures, but the woman standing next to me looked toward the sky with a knowing grin. After a few minutes she introduced herself as Ada Luz, and when I said I had 'missed it', she said I was facing the right direction, but looking the wrong way. Ada's view of things had less to do with what was visible to the eye, than with the potential of what might exist beyond our sight lines. For Ada the pictures being passed around were simply the residue of longing, and open minds in search of something divine.
Many of my trips to the Mohave were made with a good friend and historian named Lisa Bitel. Our shared curiosity grew into a long term collaboration, and was recently published by Cornell University Press.