© Sophie Green 2019 courtesy of Loose Joints

Sophie Green takes us to church

The photographer has been documenting the holy rituals going on in South London's African community.

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. 

© Sophie Green 2019 courtesy of Loose Joints

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.

© Sophie Green 2019 courtesy Loose Joints

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.

© Sophie Green 2019 courtesy of Loose Joints

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

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