"Belief & Truth" by Caitlin Chescoe offers a captivating glimpse into the mysterious world of Freemasonry.
The Freemasons are an organisation with a somewhat nefarious reputation, often viewed as an ‘old boys' club' and 'secret society', with practices designed to benefit its members.
Born into a family with three generations of Freemasons, Chescoe first became interested in the organisation a few years ago when, one day she noticed her father readying himself for a Lodge meeting, dressed in his suit, and the distinctive light blue craft collar and apron, worn by members.
She remembers: “I didn’t know anything about the Freemasons and inquired as to what it was about. My Dad showed me some of my great-grandfather's archives that he had left behind of him in his military Lodge from Abbottabad in India in the 1930s, as well as some Regalia and Jewels. I was completely confused but found it fascinating!"
A few months later, her Dad said that he thought he could get some of his friends together to do a photoshoot, and thus the project began. Having spoken to many people around her about their perceptions of ‘the brotherhood’, and finding it to be mostly negative—a perception of an "old boys' club," comprised of older, white men from well-off backgrounds, giving each other secret handshakes and business deals—she decided to try and uncover why for herself, ‘knowing that it meant and means so much to her family.’
After extensive research, she found that unbeknown to most outside the organisation, there were active women Freemasons who had been around for over a century. They had faced many barriers within Freemasonry, not being accepted by the men for many, many years, in addition to the obstacles that women already faced within society, and thus thought it to be an interesting way for the project to move forward.
“When I initially started contacting people about the project, I was aware that as a ‘society with secrets,’ there could be potential barriers but was intrigued to see how far I could go. I never intended for the project to be a ‘big reveal’ as such or an exposé; I wanted to understand why there were secrets and how individuals benefited from the added mystery.”
Despite some initial challenges, her father’s membership and guidance enabled her to gain access to the group and speak directly to other members about their experiences and their views on the negative perceptions from outsiders. Her project uncovered fascinating revelations. In addition to the presence of female Freemasons (though as Chescoe notes, there is still a large imbalance with approximately 5000 women in the UK today and 150,000 men), the group includes people from many different ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds, and also engages in substantial charitable endeavors.
"To be a Freemason means to be part of a community, a group where men or women come together from all religions to form a brotherhood. The three grand principles on which the order is founded are brotherly love, relief, and truth. One must believe in a supreme being, come highly recommended by two other Freemasons, be over eighteen, and have no prior criminal convictions."
Blending staged portraiture with candid depictions of everyday scenes, (including the preparations for ceremonies) inside the lodge, as well as details of the space itself and some of the key ceremonial objects, Chescoe’s perceptive and sensitive images paint a captivating, nuanced, picture of the group.
By spotlighting the multifaceted nature of Freemasonry, she aims to start discussions on inclusivity, gender dynamics, and societal evolution. The book's meticulous presentation, including an essay by Camilla Brown. and a further, special edition adorned with a signed print, is fitting of the narrative, underscoring the depth and complexity of the subject matter.
“I hope that the work gives people a more in-depth overview of the history of Freemasonry and answers any preconceived ideas that they already may have had about the organization. I want the work to open up a dialogue about the advantages and disadvantages of all-male and female spaces, as well as mixed spaces within the wider scope of society. How are we moving forward and progressing, and what more work needs to be done to meet each other on more of a level footing?”