Kit Gunasekera is the Vicar of St James Church in Clapham, South London. Born in Chiswick in 1972, Kit is of Sri Lankan descent and spent his early childhood in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Kit found God when he was 17 at a Sunday church service in Holy Trinity, Hounslow. He was ordained in 2006. Of things not seen, the series by local Clapham photographer Jim Grover, which is exhibiting at the Oxo Tower gallery in South London now, shows Gunasekera’s role as a priest in a church community, juxtaposing the calling of his faith with the everyday challenges of running a church, ministering to a diverse group of parishioners while trying to increase his congregation.
We speak to Grover about the creation of a series, over a calendar year in 2015:
How did the project come about?
I had been challenged by a photographer friend to find a local story here in Clapham, South London. Being local was important to me. From a very practical perspective, I needed to be able to effortlessly dip in and out of it so that I could fit it around my work commitments. At the back of our garden is Kit’s vicarage and our respective cats introduced themselves to each other, and that is what prompted the thought of exploring the life of a local priest. So it started with my cats.
My going-in objective was to tell the story of ‘A Year of Kit’s Ministry’. It’s a deliberately broad theme. I didn’t know at the time what ministry involved, beyond the roles that we all associate with priests – Sunday services and sermon, weddings and funerals. Photographer friends kept asking me: “What’s the story?” And I would answer: “I don’t know yet.”
Initially I was a bit worried about not having that definitive story to focus on, but I really liked the freedom to explore, and to see where the themes took me. So it really evolved organically. In saying that, some of the core themes of faith, community, service, compassion became increasingly clear as the year unfolded.
Tell me about what inspired you to take on a ‘photo essay’ and what was the influence of W. Eugene Smith – Country Doctor?
I had never taken on a photo-essay before and I knew it was a very different skill. I liked the idea of being able to really immerse myself in a single subject, one that involved people over a protracted period of time, so I explored Eugene Smith’s work.
Country Doctor was especially interesting for me: a man caring for his community with compassion and a strong sense service, the need to be able to engage with anyone, whatever their background and whatever their age, and then moments of ‘intense personal highs and lows’. I was intrigued by how Smith conveyed and distilled the breadth of Ceriani’s role in a few images -he shot over 2000 negatives over 23 days. And I was interested in how he also conveyed emotion. An incredible piece of work that is descriptive, sympathetic and moving.
Why did you opt to use black and white?
Black and white felt right for the timelessness of the subject, and because I wanted to challenge myself; I mostly work in colour. The Leica Monochrom gave me no options, it only generates black and white image files.
One things that strikes me is a contrast between some of the grander aspects of religion – the stain-glass windows or communion cups – and the more mundane, like the final image in the series, of a woman sewing in the hall. The essay in your photobook calls it the ‘disparity between practical and spiritual’. Was that a conscious ambition of the series?
Yes, very much so. And I started to look for contrasts between what I call ‘high church’ and ‘low church’. For me, this story is partly about how the church can connect with peoples’ everyday lives and make a difference to local communities and those in need.
The images capture object and people, but there seems to also be a sense that gestures or acts like prayer and blessing are captured?
I observed very early on that touch and prayer are big parts of Kit’s ministry and so it felt important to capture those moments. They are often very private moments and, for me, they symbolise the strength and intimacy of the relationship that Kit has with those he ministers to.
It struck me that you portray quite a familiar paradigm – church and community – in a different, fuller way. Do you agree?
I was struck by the breadth of what the Church can offer in a local community in terms of care and support.I was struck by the kindness, compassion, and generosity of spirit of Kit’s congregants who are, effectively, the living church – continually care and look out for each other.
Do you think the Church is an ’embattled institution’?
Embattled implies some sort of enemy, so I wouldn’t use that descriptor. But, certainly, the Church of England, in total, faces a number of significant challenges; declining attendances, insufficient new ministers to replace those that retire, and some very contentious internal debates, such as same-sex marriage. But I have been privilged to see and experience the profound difference that Church’s ‘footsoldiers’, the parish priests, can make in their local communities.
The exhibition’s accompanying essay suggests you, the photographer, “became personally involved with his subject’. What is your response to that and how do you think the relationship affected the project?
I know there are two opposite schools of thought when it comes to how involved a photographer should get with their subject matter, but I became personally involved. As I learned more about Kit’s parishioners I found myself becoming increasingly drawn into the community. I believe that the trust and friendships I established enabled me to capture some of the more intimate moments, both with Kit and his parishioners.
What was your relationship and perception of the church before, as compared to after, the project?
At the outset I was a typical ‘Christmas Day churchgoer’. Now I am very much part of the community, you’ll find me in Chruch every Sunday morning and I am a member of the PCC. A completely unexpected but wonderful outcome. The Bishop of Southwark, who opened the exhibition, said that he felt that my photo-story had the power to convert, but it already has. I have concluded that ministry is a remarkable and inspiring thing.
Of Things Not Seen is on show now at the Oxo Tower, Southbank, London. For more information, see here.