Brinnan Schill


Sacred Structures, Sacred Spaces: A Visual Meditation on Church Buildings


Last spring, the onset of a global pandemic disrupted almost all aspects of daily life, including the manner in which people practice religion or gather for spiritual devotion. With many people no longer able to meet in church buildings, individual worship within households or through digital meetings became a more emphasized method of accessing a “sacred space.” The sight of the empty or closed church buildings seemed to pose a question–  how do the sacred structures we build and shape impact the experience of “worship” or access to the “divine”? Clearly, worship continued outside their walls. But how do we, as individuals, create our own sacred spaces when our sacred structures are inaccessible?

Some architectural historians argue that church buildings can serve as an analogous space– that models of church design, when repeated and refined, become a catalyst for education and devotion intrinsically tied to the spiritual experiences and ritual repeated within the structure. The building then stands as a metaphor, but also serves function through facilitating ritual and recall to those moments of personal conversion (Delbeke & Morel 2010).

But with “socially distanced” devotion, those analogous spaces were no longer accessible– instead, worshippers had to create new sacred spaces, expanding that metaphorical praxis to new physical spheres. For this project, I wanted to experience and engage in a methodology along the lines of photographer Liz Hingley’s endeavors of using photography as visual anthropological practice in her projects “Under Gods: Stores from the Soho Road,” and “Faith in Suburbia: a shared photographic journey.”

In these projects, Hingley frames “ordinary, mundane” objects or “spaces of the banal” and transforms them into “spaces of feeling” through curated photographs and community participation. Following this practice, but as a solo participant, I photographed a selection of the church buildings themselves, sampling a variety of faiths around Phoenix, Arizona.

Rather than framing seemingly mundane objects into something inspiring divinity, as Hingley did, I wanted to take a closer look at the sacred buildings and reframe them during a period of time when the pandemic had rendered them seemingly obsolete. I hope this meditation invites the viewer to reflect on their relationship to sacred spaces in their own lives, whether those spaces are physical or abstract.

This project was made possible thanks to generous funding from a Harold B. Lee Library Research Grant.


“Metaphors in Action: Early Modern Church Buildings as Spaces of Knowledge.” Maarten Delbeke and Anne-Franciose Morel, Architectural History, 2010, Volume 53.

“Photographing Faith in Suburbia.” Claire Dwyer, Cultural Geographies, Vol. 22. No. 3 (July 2015).

Under Gods: Stores from the Soho Road, Liz Hingley, Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.

“‘Doing the Rest:’ The Uses of Photographs in American Studies.” Marsha Peters and Bernard Mergen, American Quarterly, 1977, Vol. 29, No. 3.

“Reflections on Religion and Place: Rural Churches and American Religion.” Mary Jo Neitz. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,” September 2005, Vol. 44. No. 3.