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'Jerusalem, Florida': The Holy Land Experience

Every week, crowds bypass Orlando’s enticing theme parks and megamalls, opting instead to follow a blood-soaked Jesus impersonator as he heads for crucifixion on an immaculate Florida lawn.

This ironic choice of amusement is what prompted photographer Daniel Cronin to pay a hefty entrance fee and document the Holy Land Theme Park Experience, a 1,200-square-foot replica of biblical Jerusalem a few miles from Disney World and other well-known theme parks.

“I went there as a curious tourist and a photographer,” Cronin said.  “I wanted to see it not just as a photographer, but as an American.”

And that peculiar American love for fictionalizing their environments has captivated Cronin, who has spent the past years following Civil War impersonators and Juggalos, a hip-hop subculture where, among many traits, followers paint themselves as clowns during their gatherings.

“I am definitely interested in escapism, but also in places and times where Americans get to be who they want to be,” Cronin said.

“You work all week in a crappy job, but on weekends, you get to dress up as a Civil War soldier or a Juggalo. You don’t get to be yourself all year.”

But in the case of a religious theme park where money-making opportunities abound, the escapism The Holy Land Experience has to offer, as in most theme parks in Orlando, is rooted in marketing opportunities where buying and praying go hand-in-hand.

Snack bars with the ubiquitous Doritos and holy trinket vendors punctuate this Christian adventure where one can swipe a credit card at any given opportunity. There are no rides or fancy technological displays, but visitors can karaoke for Jesus and pray at a faux wailing wall, where visitors fold their written prayers into the crevices decorated with plastic plants.

The park’s official website depicts the Christus Gardens as “spectacular,” advising visitors to “bring an unsaved one.”

The park’s online shopping offers a variety of artifacts ranging from spa products and anointment oils to a sword letter opener engraved with Hebrews 4:12: The Word of God is living and active, sharper than a double edged sword on its blade.

Among the available products for sale at one of the stores, Cronin photographed a large painting of Jesus depicted as a muscular boxer, his piercing gaze and flowing hair reminiscent of an action figure, a Fabio of sorts.

“To me, it all felt very artificial,” Cronin said. “There are fake plants and animals everywhere. Everything is a step below Hollywood grade,” he said.

“But as an outside observer, I was more focused on the fact that people weren’t so concerned with the authenticity of the stone work or things like that. It is a different experience for them,” he said.

Cronin said that remaining faithful to the authenticity of their experience influenced his compositional choices. Instead of hauling his large format 4×5 to the premises (“the kind you say, ‘here’s the birdie,’” Cronin said), he used a professional digital camera to remain inconspicuous. The resulting photos, a contrast with the portraiture he is known for, have a different feel.

“It has kind of a passive observer feel. This is laid out as how I am seeing it,” Cronin said.

“I am not necessarily composing a shot too much other than what is presented to me. I wanted it to be more about the environment and the people who were not interacting with the camera,” he said.

The irony of his subject matter, however, does not escape his work, regardless of how inconspicuous Cronin tried to be.

In The Holy Land Experience photo series, Cronin highlights the very juxtapositions which contrast fantasy and reality, such as the photo of the parks entrance, where a security guard dressed in ancient biblical costume ushers visitors through an ordinary metal detector.

“They are trying to let them enter into a false reality, but at the same time you have to force them into the modern security process that pretty much any theme park has at any point.”

While there are no close-ups, a subtle, discreet smile shared between a Jesus impersonator as he blesses a visitor leaves us with the question: What are the lines of fantasy in a park where faith is unquestionable?

“In some ways I don’t know if they fully believe that he was working as an actor or that, just because he looked like Jesus, they were actually getting a real blessing from him,” Cronin said.

“But for people of faith, going to this theme park is kind of encountering a physical manifestation of the realm where your savior lived,” he said.

Cronin, who hopes to visit other religious theme parks, said he rejects any snide approach to these types of parks and hopes his photos speak for themselves.

“It’s really hard to poke fun and not admire people who do what they love with passion,” Cronin said.

“There is definitely irony in my work, but I stick to showing things in a purely documentary form.

“You gotta be able to poke fun at yourself and stand back to see all levels of absurdity.”

–Helena Cavendish de Moura, Special to CNN