hingley_280Once a year, representatives of Birmingham’s Buddhists and Baha’is, Christians and Confucians, Jews and Jains all gather for dinner, joined by some of the city’s prominent Muslims and Sikhs. This culinarily challenging feast is hosted by the Council of Faiths to foster harmonious and mutual understanding between the city’s myriad religions. As part of her project, Under Gods, Liz Hingley photographed the guests co-mingling and chatting, readying themselves to break bread – if we can use that phrase – with one another.

As its title suggests, Hingley’s work is a study of faiths, in the plural. More specifically, it is a sustained examination, carried out intermittently over the course of 18 months, of the varying forms of belief and worship she found on just one street in Birmingham. “I was interested in the changing religious landscape of the urban environment, and communities where people were living closely together, places with as many religions as possible,” she explains. “So I found the Soho Road. Many people who emigrate to England – and the West Midlands – go there first because it is the cheapest area in the city to buy a house. Over the last 30 years there has been an amazing influx of immigrants from different countries. And, of course, each new community brings a different religion, or – if not a different religion – new cultural elements. Take, for example, the Buddhists: there were Sri Lankan Buddhists, Thai Buddhists, Indian Buddhists and Vietnamese Buddhists. As you can imagine, they all saw their religion very differently, and each had their own ways of practising it. It was really hard to finish the project because I kept finding new subjects; even when I was leaving Soho Road, after a year and a half, I would still stumble across new communities.”

The daughter of Anglican priests, Hingley herself grew up in multi-faith, multi-cultural Birmingham; she was the only white child in her nursery class. Perhaps that experience, and her own abstention from religious faith, helped prepare her for some of the difficulties encountered while making Under Gods. “I learned how to integrate myself with the communities only very slowly, because each required a different way of relating to them, and often people didn’t speak English. I was seen as quite a neutral person, and because there were hardly any English people on the Soho Road, they thought I had to be Polish or something else. Also, I wasn’t part of any particular group – so I wasn’t from an opposite community or a defined category.”

Ironically, Hingley’s pictures gain much of their singularity from their distinctly secular, homespun settings – hers is an intimate, suburban portrayal of Soho Road’s faithful. “I wanted to know how people were living their religion in their everyday lives… because for me that is what religion is. I didn’t read what the holy books said it was – I wanted to know what the people on the street thought it was. Why their children go to the mosque to read the Koran for two hours after school; why the black ladies have a section of their wardrobe reserved for their church hats. I wanted to know what religion really was for them, because the faiths are interpreted differently depending on time, place and person.

“I was not trying to depict people’s spirituality, which I don’t feel you can really reveal, as it is something so personal. For me – and for a lot of these people – religion is just such a practical thing. They come from different countries, and religion is what is holding their communities together, it is their social life, their history, and it is what they really cling on to. It gives them a great deal of strength in their daily life.”
Text by Guy Lane

‘Under Gods’ is featured in the current issue of 8 Magazine and will be published by Dewi Lewis this November to coincide with a four-month exhibition of the work at Wolverhampton Art Galley. The show will continue to HOST Gallery in 2011.

Listen to two further interviews conducted by Liz Hingley:

Mr Prebble
A young rastafarian boy