It all started with a simple compliment. One Sunday morning, London-based photographer Sophie Green stopped to admire a woman wearing a crisp white dress and a matching white head garment. The woman was en route to one of London’s many Aladura Spiritualist African churches where, every Sunday, thousands congregate to engage in religious and spiritual rituals that travelled the long journey from Nigeria to Southwark, a central London borough that boasts a hefty West African population. That same Sunday, Green accompanied the woman in the distinct white dress, a religious uniform known as Aso-Ebi, to her church service and for seven hours was exposed to a world that since the early 20th century has remained an important but scarcely recorded West African sub-culture.
For 24 months, Green, who is known for her explorative social documentary work and portraits, shadowed members of Southwark’s Aladura Spiritualist African churches. She engaged with churchgoers, attended church services and used her camera to capture the congregation in reflection, prayer, laughter, and healing. Her forthcoming book, Congregation, is a reflection of her experience with these churches; ones which, despite modernisation and European influence, have maintained many of the original Yoruba principles of healing and prayer they were founded on.
What inspired you to document Southwark’s Aladura Spiritualist African churches?
I live in Peckham and every Sunday morning you can see churchgoers walk up and down Rye Lane as they flow in and out of the churches. I thought they looked so beautiful and ethereal in their radiant white dress, strongly contrasting with their urban 21st Century surroundings. One Sunday I stopped a lady on the street and complimented her on how wonderful she looked and asked if she would mind if I walked with her to the church and join the service for the day. I was intrigued by what drew her to the church. Both she and the rest of the congregation welcomed me in – I then watched the 7-hour service in awe. A crowd of white-robed men, women, and children were singing, dancing and clapping to the beat of the drum, praying spontaneously in unison and following prayer from the service leader. I was entranced by the powerful display of their commitment to a faith. It was amazing to see people uniting through such a simple but obviously very moving and joyful shared experience. I was curious to further explore and document what I had witnessed.
Was there any particular inspiration behind the staging of each subject?
I didn’t have any specific influences in mind while making this work. My visual identity really consolidated itself over the period of time I was shooting. I was constantly assessing and reflecting on the images I created until I discovered the most honest way to articulate the story. I went on a huge journey while shooting the project. I honestly feel I didn’t take a good picture for the first year of shooting. Initially, I began by solely shooting inside the church interiors which I felt didn’t give any creative license – I was there documenting the service as an outsider. For me, the creative only worked once I started photographing and collaborating directly with the congregants outside the churches after services. Even though there is an element of construction in the pose and performance of each person, each photograph is faithful to the authenticity of the culture and is inspired by the way congregants naturally carry themselves. My work developed hugely as the level of connection and trust built between myself and the individuals I met and became familiar with over the time I was shooting. This allowed us to be playful in the process of creating compositions together. I photographed a number of my subjects on multiple occasions throughout my time at the church as they would return with different ideas about how they would like to be portrayed.
What ethical protocols do you set in place when capturing communities and experiences as sacred as these?
I would never take pictures that compromise the integrity of the person I’m shooting or that feel voyeuristic. This is of course even more important in the environment of a church. I believe that trust and respect are fundamental to the process of creating an emotional and revealing portrait. Luckily, the people I photographed and interviewed for this project were happy to share their experience with me and were proud for their photographs to be viewed by a larger audience to gain appreciation and understanding for their church and communities. Of course, I seek permission from every person I photograph and the subject always has a choice whether they would like to participate in my project. That means I am always learning about people through an often intimate collaboration. I want the work I create to provide a platform for the subjects I shoot to tell their story. I aim to create images that empower the people I document and approach picture making as an act of collaboration. I also work quickly and quietly and with minimal equipment. I never disturbed anyone while they were in worship or prayer, I was always thoughtful about which moments I chose to approach people for a photograph. My images were largely taken outside the churches once service had ended which meant it was a much more relaxed and informal space to interact with the congregants. Alongside the service shoots, I have been running mini photography workshops for the children within the congregations to thank them for the time, effort and commitment they put into collaborating with me. I also held a dance workshop at one particular church where I asked a professional dancer to teach the young worshippers a routine as they were all such enthusiastic dancers. After each shoot, I will do a print delivery to the church for all the congregation to keep and it’s always lovely to see people’s reactions when they view their portrait. It felt important to me to give back in any way I could.
Did you make any surprising discoveries while working on the book?
While white Christianity is currently in decline – half of the UK population identifies as having no religion – faith is actually rising among black Londoners in black-majority churches, including these ‘Cherubim and Seraphim’ and ‘Celestial’ denominations. The last UK census showed a 100% increase in black people identifying themselves as Christians. It’s an interesting time to cast a lens on modern Christianity and look at why these churches are curbing the trend.
What sort of impact do you think Aladura Spiritualist African churches have on the Southwark community?
The congregations positively illustrate collective identity. Sunday services are a way for communities in London to come together and feel connected to their cultural heritage and to celebrate their beliefs, community and culture with pride.
What power dynamics did you capture with these photos?
I was always conscious of obtaining a fair and equal dynamic between myself as a photographer and subject so we both retain authority. The creative process needs to be a two-way street. In this series, the subjects were deliberate and conscious participants. I found that the congregants wanted to represent their pride in their dress and their culture and this comes through in the photographs. They are sharing their world with me and I filter that information and find what I hope will be the most creative, respectful and stimulating way to share the story.
In what ways did you notice your subjects integrate UK or western contemporary aspects with Yoruba traditions?
In many ways, you can notice where traditions and culture dovetail. The beautiful clothing inspired by a verse in the bible is at odds with the garish, modern backdrop of kebab shops and graffiti-covered walls and cranes. I enjoyed this juxtaposition and it fascinated me seeing these cultures collide. I photographed a lady in a kebab shop where she was buying some supper after service had ended and that fusion was just such a visually exciting juxtaposition. Colourful balloons are used to dress utilitarian buildings, bringing joy and spirit to an otherwise anonymous space. The presence of mobile phones and digital cameras was widespread, particularly with the younger generations, with congregants regularly taking photos of themselves and their fellow worshippers – something that would be unseen in a conventional Church of England setting. The merge of modern technology in the sacred space was a natural extension of communication. Women will accessorise their white garments with designer bags, thick heavy jewellery and children style themselves in fashion trainers. On Sunday's, carloads of churchgoers are seen driving around the capital to various branches of their churches, all of which provided visually exciting contradictions.
What did you wish to communicate most about Aladura or religion in Southwark?
I want to acknowledge how important it is that this West African diaspora community has the means to remember and celebrate their cultural identity. Generations pass their faith and practices down the line but at the same time are integrated within their modern day surroundings. Southwark's Aladura churches create a sense of belonging, connection and community for so many African families and individuals – this felt like something to express and celebrate.
How did the congregation's traditional wear inform this project?
Their striking white outfits symbolise tradition, formality, spiritual cleanliness and uniformity and remain a staple of the surroundings on Sunday. The strong sense of belonging is explicitly shown through clothing and style, which sometimes incorporates typical Nigerian formality such as lace fabrics and occasionally colourful accessories for younger children. The dress is a visual marker, identifying them as members of the same group, linking them to their church and their broader African community as well as also being representative of their faith and their dedication to God. The dress is as visually stylised as it is spiritual.
Congregation by Sophie Green, published by Loose Joints, will be released on 25th April at Hannah Barry Gallery in Peckham