More at home with coffee roasters then men of the cloth, rollerskaters than religious rabble rousers, Jake Green has found himself breaking new ground with his latest personal project, setting himself down in the heart of one of Leytonstone’s Nigerian Evangelical churches. There he met Samuel, the pastor of The Palace of Liberty, who invited him to join in the daily life of his ministry and document it with extraordinary candour.
Jake’s been given access to an area most Londoners will be familiar with, but few will ever really have had access to. The Celestials is rich with religious fervour, but joyful at the same time; intimidating in its intensity yet full of humanity and warmth. We went for a chat with Jake to find out what the project has meant to him…
How did you meet Samuel and get involved with The Palace of Liberty?
The church is around the corner from my house and I would often see people walking up the high street dressed in white gowns. Sometimes I’d see people wearing more elaborate clothes; rich purples and greens, very vibrant. They seemed to have this great sense of energy about them. I was always quite intrigued. For a while I’d been reading a book called Juneteenth (by Ralph Ellison) about a preacher and it helped to synchronise my thoughts about the church. I got a phone number from the sign outside and ended up speaking to the Shepherd [the pastor], a man called Samuel. I arranged to visit him and we chatted about the possibility of starting a project.
What’s been the process of capturing these images?
The first time I went to a service I left my camera at home. I wanted to absorb the energy of the space and observe Samuel and his religion without any distractions. It was excruciating for me, a creative torture. I was so desperate to take pictures but I also didn’t want to seem too pushy. Mostly during the service I would sit patiently, behind the elders, in front of the younger members. After a while I felt pretty free to roam. I went every week on a Sunday, some evenings and weekdays for about three months.
You’re not a religious man yourself so what is it about the community here that you find interesting?
For me what the church represents is very much a celebration of London and its diversity. Above a row of shops on a high street in a London suburb there is a church where people gather and worship in a way that passers-by out shopping could never imagine. A passion created in a very dispassionate space. I think that there is probably a church like this on the high street in most areas of London. This particular church was very personal to me; they’re my neighbours. I wanted to get to know them and their religion. They welcomed me and I gradually became part of their community.
How are you treated by the congregation?
They were slightly sceptical of me to start with. I got the impression that they thought that I would think they were crazy. They also assumed I was an atheist, but I consider myself as more of an agnostic than an atheist. I think I stand out mostly because I’m the only person not wearing a white garment.
Generally people were pretty relaxed about me being around and having a camera. I got some really awkward looks from people who hadn’t seen me before, but I’ve become very accustomed to that. There were also intimate moments when a camera certainly wasn’t appropriate, like when a prophetess was receiving a spiritual message, speaking in tongues and it was being translated. That was very intense.
“For me what the church represents is very much a celebration of London and its diversity. Above a row of shops on a high street in a London suburb there is a church where people gather and worship in a way that passers-by out shopping could never imagine.”
What’s the aim of this series?
Initially the project started as an observation, a visual research project into the church. After a few weeks of shooting and getting to know the church I gathered that the outside community had a very skewed perception of them. I think it’s important for them to be understood and represented honestly. I want to show their passion and dedication, their routines and rituals, the depth of their family and community.
Has it changed your feelings about religion or at least how you see religion in London?
Before this project my understanding of Evangelical Christianity was very limited, so nothing has really changed in that respect. I have made friends with a lot of much older Nigerian women though. They can seem very stern and tough, very hard to get to know. We don’t have much in common but they hold the church together and I’ve come to respect that.
Samuel seems like an incredibly inspiring guy, is it easy for you to see how his congregation follow and respect him?
Samuel is very inspiring, he gets on with everyone and is very approachable. He has a lovely smile that lights up a room. He’s a leader. He has this huge booming voice that resonates within you. When he preaches and really gets going it is something very special. At that moment the whole congregation is captivated and he becomes a catalyst for their emotions.
What’s the atmosphere in the church when a service is in full swing?
The church gets into full swing from the moment Samuel starts preaching to the moment the service ends. Samuel produces this heightened sense of emotion and electricity in his congregation, people start to speak in tongues and shake – really getting into the moment physically. People will often pass out completely. The room is filled with incense and the elders splash holy water on people. As Samuel finishes his sermon the choir starts to play music and everyone stands up and dances, which breaks the tension and everyone relaxes a little. The music plays a very interesting part in the build up and release of emotion.
What’s been the most interesting thing you’ve learned from making this series?
During the project the services would become very meditative for me. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my beliefs and the way I live in many ways. Since I finished shooting the project, I’ve been reading about religion and Christianity trying to understand the appeal of the church to the congregation and Samuel but I’ve probably become less religious in the process.
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