When South African photographer Alice Mann moved to drizzly gray London, she was blown away by the distinctive, brightly colored outfits spilling onto the streets on a Sunday morning outside the Walworth Methodist Church in Camberwell, near where she lived. After receiving positive reactions from the congregation when she approached them to take their portraits, Mann spoke to the pastor of the church and started attending regularly, setting up a makeshift portrait studio in the church hall. From there, she spent a year and a half’s worth of Sundays at the church taking portraits, which she printed for her subjects and published as a series titled Always Wear Your Best On A Sunday.
An old-fashioned concept for most in this part of the world, the Sunday Best dress code is diligently and artistically upheld by the Walworth Methodist Church, whose attendees include many first and second generation Ghanaians and Nigerians. “Most of us were brought up in Africa where it is a must to dress up for church,” says regular Edith Hansen. “No jeans or trainers.” Zainab Bassie agrees — “I do my best to dress up for church on Sundays to praise and thank God” — as does June Nicol-Dundas: “I always match my outfit with shoes and bags. Green is my favorite color, and I do have a lot of green outfits. It's important to dress formally because we want to give worship to God in our best; although, it is more important to surrender our hearts, not our garments! But old habits die hard. This is why people of African heritage dress smartly to church every Sunday.”
Having grown up in South Africa, Mann is deeply interested in the African diaspora and themes of race, identity, and community run throughout her personal projects. Here, she walks us through this photo series.
When did you first notice these women outside the church? What were your first impressions?
"In 2014, I moved to London. As a newcomer to the city, I was instantly attracted by the incredible outfits I was seeing on Sundays. It was so interesting to learn about the different communities attending the churches and see how dress is a self-affirmative, empowering tool which links to their cultures and strengthens their sense of community in the United Kingdom."
How did you approach people to take their portraits? Were they into the idea?
"I started approaching people on the street with the idea of doing portraits, but over the course of a year and a half, I actually started working with the church; I approached the pastor and explained what I wanted to do, and then through him I had the support. Every Sunday, I would go and set up in the hall and make a sort of portrait studio so when people came in they could have their portrait taken. It was quite collaborative — I worked with the same people several times, and some Sundays, people would come in all in red and the next week all in green, completely coordinated for the photo. I printed the pictures the week after I photographed them and brought them in the following Sunday, so they took home their portraits."
How old are the women you photographed?
"Mostly in their sixties and upwards. I had one lady who was 89. Over the time I was working there, she died, and they used the picture that I’d taken of her for the funeral, which was so nice. Her name was Rosalind — she’s the one wearing purple [below] in this series."
What was Rosalind like?
"She was really cool, I couldn’t believe how old she was when people told me — she looked in her 70s. She had such an amazing personality that came across so well when we worked together. She really knew what she wanted to project to the camera, she had all of her poses down, it was very cool to work with her. I always enjoy working with people who have a sense of how they want to be shown."
What is the church community like?
"The Walworth Methodist Church is a mixed church. Often churches are quite specific to countries so you get all Nigerian or all Ghanaian churches, but what I liked about this church was that it was mixed, so there were lots of different styles of dress. The church even had a special fabric made for their anniversary — it’s a blue print with red and yellow patterns and it says ‘Walworth Methodist Church’ on it."
Through your conversations with your subjects, what did you learn about the role of dress in faith?
"The idea of dressing up for church is quite outdated — I don’t know many young people who dress up so fancy when they go to church. But African churches are places where you show your respect to God and to the service and to what you're doing that day, in part, by dressing your best. To look your best and feel your best — that’s respecting yourself and respecting the process of going to church. The older generation in particular spend a lot of time planning their outfits, it’s a fashion statement, and where some people might save it for a Saturday night, for them it’s all about Sunday morning. I felt an amazing confidence from the people I worked with. Throughout my work, I try to capture moments where people feel amazing."
You’ve written about the fact that you are a white South African photographer who often photographs black subjects — and about wanting to dismantle white privilege. How aware of your skin color are you when you're working on a project like this?
"Being a white photographer is something I’m very aware of. I have to be aware of my privilege when I’m working with people — white or black. Having a sense and an understanding of the position that I’m coming with as a photographer is important. My awareness of my own position makes me more critically consider how I’m engaging with people. You can’t just ‘lightly engage’ on certain topics — you have to look deeper, and that’s the way I tend to approach the subjects I’m working with. I am personally very interested in how migrant communities create a positive sense of community in a new place, and I wonder how I, as a photographer, can work to produce positive imagery, to counter the often negative imagery we see in the media of people who are seen as outsiders or ‘other’. Growing up in Cape Town, it may seem obvious, but as a society we are still catching up to a lot of these issues, and that’s why I think that work that is able to discuss the visibility of whiteness is important."