Though the Aladura Spiritualists have their foundations in Nigeria and Benin, the various denominations that make up the Christian movement have since found a strong following in diaspora communities living in London. Find yourself south of the river on a Sunday, and it’s impossible to miss their flowing white garments.
Based in Peckham, documentary photographer Sophie Green was well aware of these churches. Immediately captured by their radiant dress, she began attending their weekly seven-hour services, where she was taken by their commitment to faith and community in an increasingly atomised, secular world. It was here that she began the project that would eventually become Congregation, a new book published by Loose Joints.
“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,” she says.
“This experience triggered a desire to further explore and document what I had witnessed. Ever since I have been making pictures by slowly getting to know Southwark’s various churches and gaining the trust of their pastors and congregations a process that has continued for the past two years.”
With the project, Green was mindful of making an honest depiction and careful to respect those involved. It was a process that saw her always asking for permission, never disturbing those in prayer, and working “quickly, quietly, with minimal equipment” between services.
“I find the only way to make meaningful connections is by physically being present and meeting and talking openly with people,” she explains. “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.”
Her photographs capture a wealth of scenes – the bustle of churchgoers filtering out, the serenity of decorated altars, crucifixes that seem to emanate an inner light – taken at events that include harvest festivals, Palm Sunday, and children’s birthday parties. Given just as much time, though, are the day-to-day realities of modern services: coiled microphones and stacked chairs, congregation members queueing for ice cream vans, kids chalking up the church walls and kicking balls around in the carpark.
The result is a rich vision of a social space – one that sees Green remaining entirely focussed on the people who come together to make it. (As a thanks the participants for offering up their time and effort, she has been running photography workshops, dance classes, and sent copies of prints to everyone involved in the project.)
“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. It’s crucial that my subjects are active participants in the shoot and enjoy being part of it, so that the end product isn’t simply through my view through the lens as a documentary observer.”
“I believe sharing stories brings people together. It can only be a good thing to try to better understand the communities we coexist with. I’ve always been drawn to groups who are proud to be themselves. Religion is such a politically-loaded concept, it’s a fascinating contradiction in the sense that it can cause such polarising and isolating damage in the world, yet it can also instil so much love, connection, discipline, hope and inspiration.”