Picture This: Ritual

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From the series Zero at the Bone © Balarama Heller.

This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine: Tradition & Identity. Available to purchase at thebjpshop.com.

Edward Thompson, Tabitha Barnard, Alba Zari, Yelena Yemchuk and Balarama Heller reflect on the manifold meanings of ritual

Rituals – gestures, words or actions performed to a prescribed sequence – are common to human societies. Travel anywhere in the world, or read back as far as history tells, and you will !nd evidence of rituals. Ceremonies like weddings, funerals and coronations are characterised by activity patterns, often determined by the traditions of religion, family or friendships.

But a ritual need not be spiritual or communal. The need for ritual is innate not just to humankind but individual beings. In psychology, the term ritual is sometimes used to describe a repetitive behaviour that prevents anxiety.

For some, this manifests as simple but essential acts of wellbeing – a morning cup of coffee, an elaborate skincare routine, or a daily walk through the park, for example. Whether it be sacred, social or therapeutic, what does ritual mean to you?

Here, Edward Thompson, Tabitha Barnard, Alba Zari, Yelena Yemchuk and Balarama Heller reflect on the concept.

Edward Thompson

A man relaxes with a beer after a kill, the blood fresh on his hand. The tiniest green clover stuck to his fingers. He doesn’t worry about brushing it off. The chewing tobacco tin has worn away his denim shirt over the years, always there.

It’s these details that tell you this is real. We all have our vices; we all have our rituals. When you step out as a documentary photographer the world opens. And if you really go out there it’s hard to return to the stage, the construct, the puppet show. But why would you? When I photograph I create work that is beyond my imagination. I have faith that I will be given everything I need. To me, photography truly is magic.


After a Kill, 2006, from the series The Texas Hill!Country © Edward Thompson.

Tabitha Barnard

This image was taken two years ago after spending much of 2020 quarantining with my two youngest siblings, Grace and Salem. Shortly before it was taken, Salem cropped their hair short for the first time since childhood. A kind of ritual of gender expression in its own right. Both of their claw-like nails curl over the steps and bannister as they witness something in secret, illuminated in the glow of the living room.

We can only imagine what they see, maybe something magical or completely mundane. Much of my work has revolved around our experiences from childhood, replaying them as fantastical theatre. This ritual of sneaking down the stairs to watch and listen was one of our favourite activities. The secrecy bonded us and we felt a”level”of control in being the watcher rather than the watched.


The Twins Try Spying © Tabitha Barnard

Alba Zari

For my ongoing series Occult, I travelled to the same countries (India, Nepal, Thailand) where my mother lived while she was in the cult of the Children of God more than 30 years ago. This image was taken in Goa, India, in 2020.

The woman is practising ashtanga vinyasa yoga by the sea as part of her everyday ritual. Looking at Western communities recreating their own world and rituals in a different country, I reconstructed the past using archive images, propaganda newspapers and comics.


© Alba Zari.

Yelena Yemchuk

I took this picture on 14 January 2019, New Year’s Day in the Julian calendar. I had come to this rural village in western Ukraine to observe and photograph the Malanka holiday that takes place every new year. It is an ancient tradition that has begun to fade with time.

On the last night and first day of the new year, the village becomes a site of wild transformation and song. Malanka is a Christian holiday with pagan roots which has evolved into a secular, carnival-like 24 hours.

For me, ritual brings with it the ability to enter into and participate with the past. To dance the same steps as ancestors. To look out of the eyes of a”mask made generations before. Ritual unites past and present.


Image © Yelena Yemchuk

Balarama Heller

In contemporary American culture, communal and individual rituals are often tethered to commercial interests. Co-opting our need for continuity and meaning, our deepest desires are hijacked to enrich the rich and heap more waste upon the overflowing landfill.

That is why I set out to create a new set of rituals and rites that are linked to neither New World religions or commerce. The rituals demand the sacrifice of your fears and the willingness to confront the primordial source. Conducted far from the light-polluted skies of cities, in the flat expanse of the wilderness, under the alchemy of starlight, we swim with the invasive Burmese python.

Uncoupled from the tyranny of culture, we find a path towards a deeper and unnurtured humanity – looking into the face of that uncanny animal, we recognise a faint reflection of ourselves. Oceans of time have passed and yet we float entwined and one again.


From the series Zero at the Bone © Balarama Heller.

Read more from our ‘Picture This’ series

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.