In her documentary-style photographs, Chloe Dewe Mathews explores the behaviour of communities at unlikely places of worship. Ahead of a display of her work at Tate Modern this spring, the photographer explains just what it is that she’s looking for in her visits to Sunday service - and what she found

The congregation at a Sunday service in a Pentecostal African church in Southwark, South London © Chloe Dewe Mathews

House of Praise

© Chloe Dewe Mathews

Each Sunday for the past three months, I have visited one of the rapidly growing numbers of African majority churches in South London. I have been photographing the unlikely spaces they occupy and their distinct styles of worship. Although I am not religious, I am frequently drawn to document different kinds of ritual behaviour in my work. In fact, it is the social aspect and function of these churches that continue to fascinate me – essentially, what people do and why.

The most memorable scenes I witnessed have to be the outpouring of emotion in churches such as Freedom Centre International. Although already familiar with the idea of ‘speaking in tongues’, I hadn’t anticipated what it would feel like to experience a group of two hundred people gathered together in a state of communal trance making incomprehensible sounds. During the service the pastor walked through the congregation as he preached, touching people’s foreheads and delivering the Holy Spirit in focused doses. Some fell to the floor instantly and then lay trembling for minutes at a time. In other instances, the priest would single people out by name, propelling his blessing towards them through the air, almost like a bolt of energy or a laser beam which would have similar effects.

Liberty House © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Liberty House

© Chloe Dewe Mathews

However, there were quieter moments that I found equally memorable. I was struck by the hospitality shown to me at all of the churches I visited and the patience of certain people to explain the specific nature of their practice. At churches like Liberty House Christian Fellowship, it became clear that the role of the pastor as motivational leader can be as important as their role as spiritual guide; building peoples’ individual confidence in dealing with the difficulties of daily life with empowering sermons.

On those cold early mornings when lugging my equipment to church I asked myself why I had chosen to do this rather than relax or see friends, but I found I was genuinely drawn to the intensity of the Pentecostal church experience, to see people singing tenderly, dancing wildly, praying quietly, weeping and convulsing, was deeply invigorating to witness – so much so, that I was moved to tears by the collective energy.

Perhaps it is that combination of intense personal experience and simultaneous participation in a collective whole that appeals to so many of us. Is it trite to suggest that the exuberant abandon of these Sunday services offer a type of catharsis akin to an energetic club night, or the uplifting sensation you get when looking at a stirring piece of art? I haven’t quite decided, so will be returning for some more…

Chloe’s photographs will be on display at Tate Modern from 28 May and included in the latest edition of ‘Tate Modern and You’ – a publication regularly produced in partnership with a neighbourhood or section of the local community, in collaboration with an artist. It aims to make stronger links with different communities across the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth