Over the past year award-winning photographer Jim Grover, with his Leica Rangefinder camera, has been shadowing the work of 43-year-old Kit Gunasekera. Kit is Grover’s local vicar and Of Things Not Seen seeks to bring to life what it is to be a Church of England minister in a South London community today.
55 caught up with Jim to find out more about this body of work.
Are you a religious person?
I wasn’t…I very much fell into the ‘lapsed church-goer’ category. But I’ve been inspired by Kit, his ministry, his resolve, his faith, and his beliefs. As a result, I have learned more about myself and, totally unexpectedly, have reconnected with my own faith, which gives me new purpose and energy. And that is a completely unexpected bonus from this project.
Why did you start this body of work?
A photography friend recommended that I challenge myself with a photo-essay…something local…something to really get under the surface of…and something to evolve over several months. ‘On my doorstep’ was a necessity so that I could pick it up whenever I had some free time from my business career. I knew I wanted it to involve people. This was my first venture into the world of ‘photo-essays’
What did I discover about Kit?
Kit’s job, being a CoE minister, is very challenging!
In part it is because of the small size of his worshipping community; the lack of a large organisation around him (although he has a wonderful band of volunteers who gladly give their time), and the low income of his parish (St James’ currently generates an annual deficit, and there is a need for significant funding to fix the roof).
In part it is because of the nature of the role: the breadth of the scope of ‘Ministry’; being ‘permanently on call’ and never leaving your work behind given that your home is also your work-place; and locally representing an organisation currently wrestling with a variety of challenges.
What does it take to stay motivated and provide spiritual inspiration and leadership? At one level, emotional strength, resolve and determination. But what ultimately sustains Kit is the strength of his faith, his trust in God, and his belief that everything, however hard to understand, ‘is God’s will’. I’ve been inspired by Kit, his ministry, and the difference it makes to those he ministers to.
What did I discover about religion?
One of the obvious measures of success…whether for the Church of England in total, or for an individual Parish priest, is church attendance (‘bums on seats’) and these are currently in long-term decline. Kit’s average Sunday attendance in 2015 was unchanged at 51 versus 2014…a relative success on this basis.
But having seen what the church and its ministers offer, beyond the Sunday service, I have been struck by the significant positive differences the church and its ministers make to society whether it be in terms of contributions to foodbanks, pastoral visits, school connections…and especially in terms of offering a caring and welcoming community to those who want or need it, even if it just involves locals dropping in to Kit’s church for a welcoming cup of tea.
Why did you chose Kit Gunasekera as the focus of the work?
I thought that the working life of a priest could make for an interesting story; I had little idea of what the role entailed beyond the Sunday service, and suspected that was the case for most people. I have subsequently discovered that, as best we can tell, no other photographer has sought to tell such a story, making this a unique project.
I had met Kit, the priest in charge of St James’, Clapham, just once before through our respective cats; the vicarage is just behind our garden and our cats are mutual visitors! I had never been into his church even though it is just around the corner from our home of 17 years.
One Friday afternoon in the late summer of 2014, I walked into St. James’, somewhat hesitantly, and asked Kit if I could shadow him for a year with my camera, and tell his story. Quite an ask really!
How important do you think religion is in today’s society, in London?
I have been struck by the many kindnesses alive in the church today…of the value of community…and of the power of faith. It offers, to those who value and seek it, so much in terms of inspiration, strength, comfort, love, care and support. I have been truly moved and inspired - - and have completely re-calibrated my thinking about what the church can offer.
Has the project made you want to follow other religion and document that in the same way?
I was inspired by the other finalist images in ‘Faith through a Lens’ competition...some of which bring to life other religions.
But my real interest was documenting the life of a CoE minister in South London in 2015…that’s been more than enough for me!
What was the most touching part of your time with Kit Gunasekera you can tell us?
One of the aspects of the role that Kit finds most fulfilling are his pastoral visits; visiting those in need in their homes, hospitals, or care homes. And having accompanied Kit on many of these, I have seen for myself the huge difference that they make.
Imagine. You are in need…you believe. Kit comes to you. He chats…he reads the bible…he prays with you…he may sing to you…he gives you Communion. He gives you his undivided attention, time and love.
When Kit leaves the recipient is emotionally stronger, sometimes quite visibly, than when he arrived. What a wonderful gift to be able to give.
What made you stop the project, was their a reason or a time you had allowed for this project?
One thing I decided at the outset was to make this a year-long project so that I could really get to know Kit and his life of ministry, and also experience the complete Church calendar. But I also wanted a definite ‘end’. In fact the ‘year’ turned into 14 months and I can understand why some photo-essayists work over much longer periods; I could happily continue this story.
What are you planning next?
I’d love to do another photo-essay; it’s such a rewarding and challenging experience. But for now my priority is getting this exhibition mounted (quite a challenge in itself!) and seeing how others respond to it. Then I’ll decide ‘what next’…