Alba Zari investigates cults in an attempt to understand her family’s past the controversial sect that recruited them

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All images © Alba Zari.

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When Alba Zari was four years old, she fled the Children of God cult with her mother and grandmother. Now, after many years, she is revisiting her past in an ongoing project, The Occult

Alba Zari was born into the Children of God (COG), a Christian fundamentalist cult where the core principles include free love, tantric sex and prostitution. The cult, which now operates under a different name, The Family International, was founded in 1968 by a former pastor named David Berg. Amassing a following of born-again hippies in Huntington Beach, California, Berg convinced his followers that a major earthquake would hit the region, and took them on the road to spread his mission.

By the mid-1970s, the COG had gained a following of 10,000 full-time members, operating in 130 communities around the world. Berg urged followers to free themselves of sexual taboos, encouraging “sharing” among the adult members. However, as well as reports of alleged child abuse, the cult was notorious for practising a form of religious prostitution, which they called ‘flirty fishing’. Female members were referred to as ‘God’s whores’, and encouraged to have sex with strangers to raise money and recruit new members. This resulted in many second generation births, and children born into the cult were labelled ‘Jesus babies’. One of them was Zari.

Occult is the visual artist’s ongoing project exploring the beliefs and propaganda that the cult used to recruit her grandmother, Rosa, 40 years ago. Rosa was in her early thirties, living in Trieste, Italy, and married with three children when she met an American man called Simon – a member of the COG – and fell in love. Zari’s mother, Ivana, was 13 at the time. She was the only child “of age” to join the cult.

In 1979, Rosa and Ivana boarded a flight to Greece and spent the next 22 years living and working in the cult, moving between India, Nepal and Thailand. Then, in 1991, when Zari was four years old, her family escaped. “I think something was going to happen to me,” says Zari, tentatively. “That scared [my grandmother], and we escaped, but it’s not really clear. That’s why I need to do this project, to try and understand the reasons.”

Zari’s mother reinterpreting the family album.
Archive of the Children of God.
Propaganda comic of the Children of God.

Zari and her family lived in Thailand until she was eight, when they moved back to Trieste. Since then, the 33-year-old artist has lived and studied in Bologna, Milan, New York, Bristol and now London. Her grandmother currently lives on the Amalfi Coast, and her mother in a psychiatric hospital in Trieste.

“The trauma was bad from coming out of the cult, and she couldn’t adapt,” says Zari. Neither of them speak about their time in the COG, which makes it difficult for Zari to research their past, especially since she recalls so little herself. “I remember the fears I had when I left… Like being scared of the rain because I’d never experienced it outdoors,” she says. Children were rarely allowed to leave the house until they were ready to work. “I’m lucky that I don’t have many memories. But that’s also why I want to know the whole story, because I have this lack of memory… I cannot just pretend it never happened. As an artist and a daughter, it’s important for me to tell this story.”

Zari is currently working on a dummy book with creative director and curator Ramon Pez. Multilayered and research-intensive, the project explores the cult’s manipulation tactics through archival photographs and documents, such as newspapers, flyers and magazines. These were mostly sourced from an online encyclopedia – xfamily.org – created and managed by ex-cult members. Zari also incorporates her family archive, presenting it alongside combinations of image and text. These include screenshots from tantra videos and documentaries about the cult, layered against excerpts from newsletters and manifestos.

As well as telling her personal story, Zari is also interested in reflecting on the medium of photography and its ability to manipulate the truth. She uses a thermal camera as a tool to “read the energy” of places where people organise spiritual rituals [below]. “In a way it’s showing my opinion, and saying I don’t really believe in what is happening here,” says Zari.

Reading the energy, Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
Reading the energy at the temple, Kathmandu, Nepal.

“One thing I found when I met these people who were seeking spirituality and freedom, was that it always came from desperation or pain. And so when these cults come in, they easily manipulate them and make them think that they have a solution for their lives. It’s scary how when you’re so weak, people like that can ruin your life.”

Collage, including image of Father David Berg.

The project is a follow-up to Zari’s award-winning photobook, The Y. When Zari was 25, she learned that the man who raised her in the cult was not her father, prompting a visual investigation into her origins. Her mother only had a few details about her biological father. He was an Arabic man called Massan, and he was working for Emirates airline.

They met for three days in Bangkok while she was out working for the cult. “He was just a guy that slept with my mum, and that’s it,” says Zari. “It was painful for her, what happened… I’m trying to be delicate with her and find my own answers because I respect her and I understand what she has been through.”

In The Y, Zari uses photography as an investigative medium, employing a scientific approach to keep a distance from a painful past. “The Y gave me the strength to focus on this new project, which is more intense,” she reflects. In Occult, Zari’s family history forms the core of the project, but there are two sides to the narrative. “The emotional part of my past, and the objectivity from other people’s pictures and texts,” she explains.

In an attempt to further understand why people join cults, Zari travelled to the countries her mother had lived in with the COG – India, Nepal and Thailand – retracing her journey and searching for existing cults that practised tantra or free love. “Every place I went, I always had [my mother] in my mind,” she says.

The photographer encountered groups of people, generally from the west, who were looking to establish a micro-community. “One thing I found when I met these people who were seeking spirituality and freedom, was that it always came from desperation or pain,” Zari reflects. Many were alcoholics, drug addicts, suffering from grief, or seeking change in an unsatisfying life. “They were really fragile. And so when [these cults] come in, they easily manipulate them and make them think that they have a solution for their lives. It’s scary how when you’re so weak, people like that can ruin your life.”

Awakening, Goa, India.

“Even though my connection with spirituality is very different, I never want to be judgemental or cynical about it,” she says. “It was painful to think of my mother in that situation, and of how I escaped when I was four… What would have happened if I stayed?”

Sacrificial sharing and ‘flirty fishing’.

When Zari was making pictures, it was important to remain impartial. “Even though my connection with spirituality is very different, I never want to be judgemental or cynical about it,” she says. “It was painful to think of my mother in that situation, and of how I escaped when I was four… What would have happened if I stayed?”

For Zari, it’s essential that her mother, and other women who have been through similar experiences, do not feel ashamed or guilty about what happened. “It’s not just my personal story, there are other important feminist topics that I wanted to reflect on,” she says, explaining how she wants to raise awareness of the abuse and emotional manipulation that proliferates within cults.

“I don’t know if revenge is the right word, but I want to sort of vindicate [my mother’s] life. She didn’t have a choice, and I don’t want that to happen to other women.”

Alba Zari is currently producing The Occult as a dummy book. She will be showing the work at Images Vevey from 03-25 September 2022.

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.