Erin Riley explores religion in the military

Nov 11, 2014 | News

By Jacob Wilson-Hajdu

The photograph shows the skull tattoo on the Chaplain’s forearm.

Arm Tattoo

Padre Dwight Nelson’s arm Tattoo

It’s a road sign from the life Padre Dwight Nelson has lived. He’s seen good and he’s seen evil.

“Just as we say there is God, there is evil,” Nelson told Humber photography teacher Erin Riley.

Nelson’s arm, tattoo and words are part of Riley’s photo documentary focusing on religion and faith in the Canadian Forces.

Riley had finished a project in the Arctic with the Canadian Forces Artist Program in 2011, when her curiosity focused specifically on the Chaplain’s role in the military.

“Well, I had some interactions with chaplains in the past and I just started thinking about it and in my mind I couldn’t make it fit together,” Riley said. “Like why you would be a priest and then join the army?

“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “And that’s what I do. If something is bugging then I start a project about it so I can work at it and unravel it to make sense.”

The project consists of many images of Chaplain’s praying and objects that reflect religion in the military. Riley also interviewed many of the Chaplains she shot.

They are Christian, Jewish and Muslim. And they live in a contradictory world.

Padre Timothy Parker told Riley that military chaplains fight without weapons.

“Because Chaplains don’t bear arms. Praise be to god. Part of our function is to show people-the fighting men and women- what they are fighting for. And that is a world without arms. The world is in part what you make it.”

Each photograph is accompanied with either a Bible passage or personal reflection, each reflecting how religion is perceived and reflected on in the army.

“They know what it is like that to be ripped from their families for six months in Afghanistan,” Riley said. “They know what it is like to be in a forward operating base in Afghanistan. So there is that connection.

“They know what it is to be a solider and then they have this added layer of being there for them when they need them,” she said.

Riley also spoke about how her use of different photographic tools affected the outcome of her imagery. Instead of using her regular choice of a 35 mm digital camera, she used a medium format film camera to slow down and capture the “stillness” of this documentary.

“Well I think using the medium format camera, first of all it gives the images a different look. And it has it’s own unique aesthetic,” she said.

“It also forced me to slow down and think about things. I couldn’t just blow off a 100 frames. I had a roll of film that have 12 frames on it, so I had to consider everything,” Riley said.


View her documentary at