“I’ve grown up in the church, and I’ve had it in my mind to explore my own beliefs through photographing religion”, says the photographer Mary Perez. Currently based in Shanghai, Mary tells It’s Nice That about her latest project Full Gospel from the other side of the world. The project came about after Mary had been photographing people in Cardiff who’ve experienced turning points in their religion. It led Mary to a further desire to “confront parts of the church that [she] was not very familiar with or comfortable with” as seen through her latest series documenting the large megachurches of Korea.
She tells us, “Throughout my teenage years, I’d heard about Korea having the largest churches in the world”, and with the help of a friend who helped Mary communicate with the church administrations, she embarked on an investigative journey with the megachurch. She focused primarily on Yoido, a Pentecostal church in Seoul with around 800,000 members. Yoido quickly became Mary’s favourite church to photograph, not only because of its size, but because “of it’s buzzing energy, people and vibrant colours.”
As Mary grew accustomed to the ways of the megachurch, she developed a particular interest in the separation between the congregation and leadership. Her photographs document this through physical visualisations of broadcasting; stadium-sized screens and hoards of devoted Christians are candidly depicted through the clean glare of Mary’s lens. The megachurch obtains its numbers by being a “satellite” church with six on-campus sanctuaries that also broadcasts services from a “mother church”. On a Sunday, Yoido’s six sanctuaries are filled to capacity, seating over 26,000 people in this stellar megachurch.
All in all, Mary spent every day for about three weeks amidst these places of worship. Additionally, she explains, “It took me a month of research and a lifetime of experiences in the US Christian church” to prepare for this project. And though the size of the congregation and the megachurch’s praying practices differed from Mary’s usual surroundings, the spiritual connection that people seemed to whole-heartedly experience, struck the photographer intensely.
“I had read that praying was important in Korean churches. During the times of Christian persecution, prayer services were held in the mountains in the cover of the night”, says Mary. At the megachurches, “many people would pray out loud, saying their individual prayers and having their own conversations with God, it was a loud scene.” Alternately, at a memorial mountain prayer camp in the mountains, ten metre-long spongy prayer mats were filled with prayers, deep in thought on the floor.
“Coming from an American Christian background”, Mary explains, “praying on the floor (on a white mat they want to keep clean), isn’t a regular staple of worship”. But nevertheless “the spiritual intimacy that people felt” is absorbed in the energy of her photography and evokes the powerful sense of emotion and faith that these church-goers experience. Shot through a Nikon D800, Mary’s journey through unfamiliarity is sensitively captured through Full Gospel. Though the colourful uniforms, neon lights and massive curtains were all new church references to Mary, the spirituality and kindness within the community brought back familiar memories to the journalistic photographer. “I’m not sure I ever got used to the amount of people and the production levels that went on though”, Mary concludes.
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