(Always) Wear Your Best on a Sunday

This project began with an initial interest in the aesthetic of African traditional dress in London and the way that Sunday church services provided these communities with an opportunity to come together from across the capital in all their cultural finery. These Sunday services were an occasion to be celebrated for the congregants and provided a sense of pride and community that is often lacking within minority communities in the United Kingdom.

In this series of images, I aim to investigate the relationship between dress and worship amongst members of Walworths Methodist Church, a church where the majority of the congregants are part of London’s African diasporic community. This body of work is a continuation of my interest in social grouping and ‘othering’ in contemporary society with a particular focus on personal appearance, identity, and visual politics within African minority communities in the United Kingdom.

After a couple of months visiting the church and through conversation with the congregants and pastors it became apparent that the competition to look ones best at these services was in fact integral to the entire occasion. As one pastor noted, many of the congregants associated Sunday services with looking their best and exhibiting their favourite pieces. There was always an element of performance at these services, congregants enjoyed being photographed, they were always eager to show off their latest fabrics or a trend they had picked up on. The presence of cellphones and digital cameras were ubiquitous at the services with congregants eager to present themselves to their peers in their best look.

Over time, I became aware that these elaborate outfits served a dual purpose for the congregants. On the one hand they were a visual marker, identifying them as members of the same group, linking them to their church and their broader African community. A number of congregants mentioned sourcing fabrics or dress designs on annual trips back home, or getting family and friends to send certain sought after items to the UK. On the other hand, the outfits themselves were representative of ones faith, they were a way for the congregants to 'show worship' or announce their dedication to God.

I chose to photograph all my subjects in this series in-front of the same constructed backdrop in order to give all my images the same sense of basic uniformity. This uniformity was then intended to accentuate the different outfits and personalities that were presented to me by my subjects on any given day. The apparent element of construction is significant because I want viewers to be aware that these images are performed. My subjects were always self conscious of the way that they were projecting their image to the camera, they were always very involved in the process. I photographed a number of my subjects on different occasions throughout my time at the church as they would return with a different outfit and ideas about how they would like to pose. Often they would make reference to older photographs I had taken, or images of their own, in an attempt to achieve a particular look they had in mind. Working within the historical framework of visual representation of black immigrants in the UK, it was this sense of pride and self awareness that I hoped to highlight through my images.