Driving Down Bible Road, Camera in Hand Photographer Sam Fentress sees signs. For more than 20 years he has been shooting religious-themed, hand-crafted signs, from church billboards to biblical quotations in salon windows. He joins Farai Chideya to discuss his new book, Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape and the deep well of spirituality in African-American communities.
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Driving Down Bible Road, Camera in Hand

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Driving Down Bible Road, Camera in Hand

Driving Down Bible Road, Camera in Hand

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Sam Fentress has its eye on religion in America - for real. He photographs the makeshift messages that Christians post in public spaces. Some of his favorite shots have come on the streets of black America.

Mr. SAM FENTRESS (Photographer): As a matter of fact, when I'm driving around, I often look for Martin Luther King Boulevard because it's a safe bet that there's something interesting.

CHIDEYA: One photo in Sam Fentress' new book, "Bible Road," features a sign painted on the window of a beauty salon. It shows the head of a black woman with a lovely hairdo. Beneath her is printed Matthew 6:33. That's a scripture from the famous Sermon on the Mount, and in that sermon, Jesus says not to worry about what you're going to wear.

Mr. FENTRESS: It's interesting that the hair salon owner is sort of advertising against her main service.

CHIDEYA: Sam Fentress is a practicing Catholic. He's been taking these pictures for 26 years. His unusual began with a day job. As an architectural photographer, he was always on the road.

Mr. FENTRESS: I do sort of think of it as America from the dashboard. But when I started out with this, I had probably the same preconception that a lot of people might, that it's a Bible Belt phenomenon, that it's going away, it's of the past only. But as I got out to more and more regions, I found the subject everywhere that I went, not just the Bible Belt. That was amazing to me.

CHIDEYA: Does this way of expressing faith on signboards and sometimes with misspellings influence how you see faith? And I guess what I mean by that is, do you see faith differently because of all the ways that people are trying so hard to make a statement, even if quite literally they're statements are not quite what they intended?

Mr. FENTRESS: I have a great respect for the gutsiness of these people. There's a lot of emotion here. There's a lot of chutzpah, people taking big risks, putting something out there in public, something that's considered not right to talk about.

One of the most interesting things that I found was just how Americans will use anything - whether it's the mud flaps on their truck or a pedestrian crossing sign or a billboard, their beauty salon window - to express their faith.

CHIDEYA: A lonely image of Jesus Christ and multiple, multiple, multiple, multiple beer signs on a really raggedy store…

Mr. FENTRESS: Lots of beer.

CHIDEYA: Jesus is kind of outnumbered. You've got one, Miller Genuine Draft, with these two African-American men and the sign, which is a Society of St. Vincent DePaul sign, it says every poor man has potential. And to me, it just cuts to the quick of this messaging that comes at people when they're economically vulnerable.

Mr. FENTRESS: This was on Mack Avenue in Detroit in the early '90s, and I hope that I have photographed it in a neutral way that allows the viewer to have their own interpretations. But my personal interpretation is, well, one side of the photograph is perhaps about using potential and the others about losing potential.

CHIDEYA: It could make you feel co-opted if you were someone, for example, who either didn't agree in this particular brand of Christianity or religion, or that you were someone who wasn't a believer. I mean, did you recognize that there might be some tension in that?

Mr. FENTRESS: Yes, and I think that's a tension that goes through the whole book. When you photograph something like this and put it in a book, it turns down the volume and it's a silent experience. And you can take it or leave it. And the way I hoped that I've approached the subject matter is in a way that respects the religious belief or a lack of religious belief of anybody who's looking at it; that this is a documentary project and it defines, describes, explores something that's really out there in the American landscape that a lot of people find interesting whether or not they are believers.

CHIDEYA: All right. So you've got in the nation's capital, very appropriate in some ways, stop - a big octagonal stop sign - hell has no exit. What does that say to you?

Mr. FENTRESS: I love this picture. It's one of my favorites. I was in the D.C. area to photograph a commercial job, and I had some spare time so I talked to some policemen in McDonald's downtown and they said, well, you might go over to this neighborhood near the Potomac, but you really shouldn't go there. It's a big drug area; it's very sort of dangerous, especially walking around with a camera.

Well, I went in anyway and I found this sign. And I understood it to be perhaps somebody talking to drug dealers and saying, don't be in our neighborhood or stop doing what you're doing. There are other repercussions besides possibly getting arrested that are everlasting. It looks like a speed limit sign with the same sort of lettering and black border around it. So it has an official sort of look, as if the government is endorsing this religious view.

CHIDEYA: Did you ever find instances of the signs being vandalized?

Mr. FENTRESS: Definitely. There's a lot of signs in the Midwest that just say: Trust Jesus. I'm guessing that it's a trucker who has stopped over and over at different highway overpasses and used blue spray paint to spray-paint the words trust Jesus on one of the columns supporting the bridge.

And over the years, I've seen the sort of a circle with the line through it covering that message, or seen that message juxtaposed with somebody who is responding to it, saying maybe they've written the word don't, so it's now don't trust Jesus. There are also just a bunch of situations where the people have scrubbed them clean. I guess that's a whole sub-genre of this large group of photographs that I've taken.

CHIDEYA: That was photographer Sam Fentress. And you can see a video presentation of some of the photos in his new book, "Bible Road." Just go to our Web site at npr.org/news¬es.

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