Seeing Healing

Q&A with Lenny Foster

by Stacy Smith

In a town full of artists and creatives, Lenny Foster stands out. His gallery in Taos, New Mexico, is routinely selected as a favorite among Taos residents. But it’s not just a space to display his photography. Rather, in the Living Light Photography Studio and Gallery, Foster has built a space that is more sanctuary than showcase. In addition to beautiful photos of New Mexico and a collection of “sacred moments” that traverse the globe, Foster has cultivated the Healing Hands project, an exquisite showcase of photographs of people’s hands—pastors, friends, shamans, doctors, healers, children, seniors and everyone in between. His book Healing Hands: Embodied Spirit and Light (Brother Bee Books, 2013) is a collection of photographs and stories from this project over the last decade.

Foster discovered a passion for photography after five years in recovery. He is a unique artist who documents healers of many faiths, and whose craft is itself a spiritual and healing practice. Stacy Smith visited Foster at his Taos gallery to learn about his history, his spirituality, and his focus on hands of healing.

Stacy Smith: How did you become a photographer?

Lenny Foster: I grew up in the Washington DC area, mainly suburban Maryland, and my sweet parents James and Mary were government workers. We grew up in Emmanuel Baptist Church in southeast Washington, close to Anacostia. And of course we were at church every Sunday—no excuses. My parents’ philosophy is to use your blessing to be a blessing to others. I probably hadn’t realized how much I tried to do that until these last few years, with the work that I do. I see them and their influence because my work is about spirit, beauty and love.

By 1991 I was a manager at a car dealership in Northern Virginia, working a lot of hours in a very demanding, stressful environment. I was five years sober at the time and needed something besides work, meetings, and working out. So at the suggestion of a friend, I bought a camera—just for something to do. I would go hiking in Great Falls, Maryland, Virginia, Skyline drive, the eastern shore of Maryland, St. Michaels, Ocean City, and just walk, and chew, and eat apples, and sit. I thought about this new life I had found and grew excited about my passion for photography and what it gave me. It caused me to slow down and look, and see, and focus.

I don’t know anything about cameras, but I know people who like cameras would want to know what your first camera was.

It was a Pentax K1000, old school 35mm. Initially I shot mostly color, because of where I was at that point in my life. Things were more positive, more possible, more colorful. Five years into my sobriety, my focus was on the beauty of life, and living. I was certainly much happier.

How did you develop the Healing Hands project?

I captured the first seven or eight images of this series in Senegal, West Africa, in 1995, my first major trip overseas and the beginnings of my first body of work. I shot maybe 400 or so images and didn’t realize that I had a focus on hands until I came back here and began looking through them. The first set was taken during a week-long healing ceremony.

Then, as I started focusing on photography and trying to make a living, I was privileged to be invited into people’s intimate situations. Whether it’s a fiftieth wedding anniversary mass, a bat mitzvah, a first holy communion, a hundredth birthday, or a Buddhist gathering, I am there with a camera. So the project kind of took me on rather than me taking it on.

You seem to find healing hands everywhere, from Senegal to Roman Catholic healers to a little girl at the store. How do you spot healing hands?

All of us have them—you in what you do, me in what I do. I think the project helps people to recognize that in ourselves and in others. Maybe I am searching for that healing, that spirit, in myself and in others.

What really interests me is the people who come into the gallery. I have people like yourself who come in to the gallery, clergy who are so moved and inspired by the work. Some people from academia come in, some traditional healers who are attracted to the work, everyday people who attracted to the work. People sense the spirit in these different languages and different images. That’s the one thing—no matter what our backgrounds are, we can all understand and come together in healing.

How do you see a project like this reaching into communities of poverty, extreme pain, recovery communities?

Photography is a language everyone can understand. Several years ago, this young college guy came in, with this tattered, crumpled down baseball cap, ratty jeans, t-shirt—you know, college! I kind of sized him up, but he got in front of this image, “Blue Robe,” and he started crying. To me that said a lot. The pictures are great, but these experiences—being around people of different faiths, lay people, healers—it had a profound effect on me. I am focused on creating the imagery, but I also love the experience.

You’ve created a beautiful sanctuary here where people can leave tokens or items of healing. It’s clear that this space is informed by the mission.

Yes, it is! Some people come in and may not want to leave. I’ll be at my desk, and give them a little time, and they’ll walk through the threshold and they’ll be in tears. Or they’ll freak out and go running out the door. And I have to treat them the same!

Let’s talk about some specific photos. The piece “Healing Hands” is the namesake piece for this series. Tell me about the woman in this photo.

She was sitting in a sandy courtyard in Dakar, Senegal, making talismans—waistbands, or bracelets, or necklaces, one for blessing or one for protection. I approached her as she was working, and I saw her hands were stained with indigo dye. It’s a purposeful, repeated application of indigo for both adornment and spiritual practice. She literally held healing in the palm of her hand. And as she was working I just gestured to ask if she would open her hands, and when she did—Wow. I got so excited and was just praying that I would be calm enough to focus and take the picture.

In “Open Heart, Helping Hands,” you have a photograph of the Rev. Ted Wiard. Can you tell me a little bit about him?

Within a five-year period, Ted lost his brother in a boating accident, his wife to cancer, and his two daughters and his mother-in-law in a car accident. This is a short period of time for so much loss. For someone like him to be standing—I think it’s miraculous. So he turned that grief into a service for others. He is now a licensed clinical therapist and certified grief counselor, and he owns Golden Willow Retreat, a sanctuary for loss, transition and recovery. It’s a beautiful place, and it has a little sanctuary; in the photo we are standing in the doorway. I’m sure you come across people like Ted, people who it’s humbling to be in their presence. They have such a huge God-spirit and it’s an honor to be around them.

“At the Cross” describes Steve, who you say has also experienced sadness, yet there’s this vibrant cross at the center, which to me is very much what being at the cross is like. Can you say a little bit about this piece?

Steve is the pastor of the El Pueblito United Methodist Church. He’s another one of those guys, just being around him and his wife—oh, I’m not worthy! They just give. A great guy! Fanatical Boston Red Sox, Patriots fan, the guy you have a beer with on Saturday and then go to church with on Sunday.

This was taken shortly after he was divorced. We went for a walk to one of my favorite places, a very peaceful place, and I think there was a little bit of snow on the ground, so it’s probably early in the year. He was talking about his sadness, mourning the loss of that relationship. It was late in the evening, and he turned, and the sun was just above the trees, nearing sunset, and the light from the sun reflected in the smooth silver cross. At the time I had a sunburst filter in my little kit, so when it catches any light it disperses it. When he turned I saw the little glint, and put on this filter and shot it. One of our favorite images. We’ve been through a lot together.

And “The Prayer of Touch”—Cynthia?

Yes, Cynthia. She’s a local, lives around the corner here and is a writer and poet. She’s a very funny lady. She says she has macular degeneration but she can see insects, so maybe she has a superpower? I say, “I think you do, Cynthia.”

What I wanted from her was her fingertips, because that’s how she sees and prays. I just wanted the softness there, the preciousness of her fingertips.

You’re soon moving to St. Augustine, Florida, but have been in Taos for 20 years. How does being in this unique community inform your work?

The beauty of being in Taos is the space, the pace, and the intimacy. Being in a small community, you know when stuff happens to people. You know the good, the bad, and the ugly. Somehow we are all interconnected. It’s allowed and encouraged me to do my thing, and to be who I am. Taos has supported me and encouraged me to learn. Maybe my initial inclination is to play it small, but God says, Come on now. He’s put people in my path that say, hey, you can do this or do that, or we support you in this, or you can do that, or let me buy something from you. In Taos I’ve grown as an artist, as a man, as a spiritual being.

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