This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, their stories, goals and learnings along the way.
Can you give me an overview of your project, its title and what is its main theme?
‘Of things not seen’ is a photo-essay that seeks to bring to life the working life of a Church of England minister, Kit Gunasekera who ministers in Clapham in South London, over the course of a year.
How does the theme develop as a story throughout the project.
I knew little about ministry, and Kit’s life, so I just let the story evolve with no fixed ideas. The original theme agreed with Kit was deliberately broad: ‘A Year of Kit’s Ministry’.
A few months in I thought I had a possible theme to develop. Sitting with Kit in his vicarage office one morning, Kit wrote the word ‘Battle’ with a yellow highlighter on an annual response form from one his congregation.
At that time I was seeing so many challenges for Kit: a small church congregation that wasn’t growing; a ‘full on’ job with almost no time off; issues the CoE was wrestling with; financial losses for Kit’s church; and a big Christmas campaign that failed to attract any newcomers and a Christmas Day congregation of only 41. It would not have been difficult to focus on the multitude of challenges that a priest, with a small and low-income congregation, faces today in a place like South London.
But as I experienced more of Kit and his life, of his very diverse congregation, of the people he connects with in his Parish, of his fellow priests that he works with in the community…bigger and more powerful themes became clear. Of spiritual strength…of the energy-giving properties of belief…of service and commitment…of the many kindnesses alive in the church today…of the value of community…and of the power of faith.
Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause-related end in mind.
At one level this is for myself and my own development. But I have also undertaken it as ‘an investment’…to see if I can create opportunities for myself in the professional photography world.
From the outset I have set out to make the photo-essay, and all of the extensive facts, figures, analysis, and perspectives that I have gathered, available (through a dedicated website) to the Church of England and schools – – to provide a contemporary perspective as to what it’s like to be a CoE Minister today in a South London parish.
Finally, I was fortunate enough to win a photography competition (‘Faith Through a Lens’; chaired by Don McCullin) with one of my images and Kit’s church received £1000 as a result.
What photographic choices have you made: colour palette, composition, use of flash etc.
I shot ‘Of things not seen’ in Black and White, and as ’reportage’, seeking to follow in the footsteps of the original photo-essayists. It forced me to develop a new skill; I shoot colour 99% of the time.
I used natural light to avoid being conspicuous. And, in the spirit of ‘reportage’, I have been true to what I saw and shot, resisting the (strong at times!) temptation to clone out any distractions in the image in the processing stage.
What is your vision for the project, and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?
‘Of things not seen’ will be exhibited in gallery@Oxo on London’s Southbank in March (3rd-20th) so, of course, one important measure of success will be how viewers respond to it.
But I am also interested in seeing how other ministers and clergy respond to the work and whether they recognize the life and work that I have portrayed.
Finally, I would love people who are interested in Ministry, for whatever reason, to access the website which has been populated with a lot of resources and links.
Oh…and I need to sell exhibition catalogues! It’s the only source of income and putting on an exhibition is very expensive!
Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?
This was my first photo-essay. So I looked at the work of other photo-essayists, from the original ‘greats’, such as Eugene Smith, to contemporary story-tellers such as Carolyn Drake, and I researched their experiences.
I scoured the web to learn more about the Church of England, the ‘job spec’ of a priest, and what it is like to be a priest. And I sought advice from professional photographer friends. One of them warned me that on most days I’d come back with nothing worthwhile, such is the nature of reportage photography (at least in terms of images…there were always interesting experiences and stories!), and then some days I’d come back with ‘gold’; there were many of the former and, luckily, enough of the latter!
Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what are your learnings?
I think I have been remarkably lucky; I developed a great relationship with Kit, and the congregation of his church, who have been remarkably trusting and supportive (even though I was a complete stranger at the outset, and some of them must have had questions around my motives). And so I have been able to capture a wealth of, sometimes intimate and intense, moments – – both for Kit and for those he ministers to.
Offering to become ‘the church photographer’ and capturing all of their church events for their website (in colour!) definitely helped build my relationships.
Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?
Three particular challenges I have had to confront.
Firstly…light! So much of this story has had to be shot indoors, and most often with ‘flat’ and subdued light (and usually in rooms, both big and small, illuminated with standard over-hanging light bulbs; a challenge!).
Secondly…the limitations of the Leica rangefinder and the church environment. Thus a 70-200mm zoom would have been invaluable in some church service settings…when it would have been too disruptive and intrusive for the congregation if I had been ‘in close’ with my 35mm or 50mm lens.
And thirdly…the need to be ready with the camera all of the time! Alas I missed many unexpected interactions and intimate moments between Kit and his parishioners…both ‘out and about’ and in his church.
Of course editing a year’s work down into ~40 exhibition prints is a painful and brutal process; I have found working with a 3rd party curator invaluable as she has brought an independent and ruthless eye!
What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
I used two Leica Monochroms, both the original M9 version, and the current M246 version. They were a joy to use…small, quiet and discrete, which was critical for this project; they produce beautiful files, filled with detail, especially in the shadows; and they produce lovely images at high ISOs, which was invaluable given the low light on many occasions.
Whilst I personally prefer the images from the M9 version, I think the M246 is a better all-round camera (producing beautiful files at ISOs of 2000). The ‘super quiet’ shutter release capability on the M9 version was especially useful in quiet church services, or when shooting people ‘close up’, for example bed bound parishioners in small rooms.
In terms of lenses; with a very few exceptions, I used the Leica 35mm f1.4 ASPH, or the Leica 50mm f2 APO…some of Leica’s iconic glass!
Please list any links to your work you’d like to see included with the blog post
The photo-essay website: www.ofthingsnotseen.com
Oxo gallery on London’s Southbank: http://www.oxotower.co.uk/whats-on/
‘Faith Through a Lens’ Competition, featuring Don McCullin https://youtu.be/9I_RMmJH4fM
After a long and successful career in international business, Jim Grover has increasingly focused on photography over the last five years. He was short-listed for the Sony World Photography Awards in 2012 and 2014, and exhibited in Somerset House and published as a result of these awards. In 2010 he was commended in the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition, exhibited in the National Theatre and included in the book that accompanied the awards.
Grover has also had his work published in the following newspapers: The Guardian Saturday Magazine and on-line; The Daily Telegraph Saturday Travel section and on-line; and The Sunday Times and The Times Travel Sections and on-line.
He is the winner of the ‘Faith through a Lens’ 2015 photography competition.
He is a regular contributor to the Leica Meet site, and is featured in this years’ ‘Leica Meet Selection of Excellence 2015 photobook’.
Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to almost 8,000 members. If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.olafwilloughby.com.