Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Gloriavale through the lens

The pictures reveal a new side of the religious community. Photo / Cameron McLaren
The pictures reveal a new side of the religious community. Photo / Cameron McLaren

When photographer Cameron McLaren visited the reclusive Christian community of Gloriavale, he expected to be told what he could and could not photograph and to have an ever-present guide.

But McLaren, who spent two days at the Haupiri site in May 2015, said he was left to wander unescorted around the isolated West Coast community and made to feel welcome by its 600 or so residents.

He ate with members of the community, slept in communal living quarters and witnessed how daily life at Gloriavale is infused with Christianity.

"That could be intense at times and I suppose intimidating for someone who's not lived or living that religious lifestyle but I got no sense that they were dangerous," he said.

"I thought they were gracious and welcoming."

McLaren, who is not religious, returned with some 2000 photographs. Now he's chosen around 14 black and white images to display at Auckland's Black Asterisk Gallery while a number of others appear in a photography book.

The photographs show scenes from the everyday life of the community, domestic interiors, social activities and moments of solitude.

McLaren was fascinated by places like the dining hall, where there's a model of a dinosaur, and a workroom packed with props for the stage shows put on by the community.

"I've picked the photos which show how people live at Gloriavale and I hope they're looked at as offering a window into a different way of life."

The state-of-the-art facilities and the community's level of self-sufficiency surprised him most.

Quiet moments of solitude at Gloriavale. Photo / Cameron McLaren
Quiet moments of solitude at Gloriavale. Photo / Cameron McLaren

He reckons the idea of living in a community where everything is built and maintained by the hands of its members is attractive.

"Imagine living in a community you built with your hands. You spend each day with your friends and family, you have everything you need to survive. No distractions. It's some kind of bubble fantasy that has become a reality."

The photos came out of a bigger project to document life in self-sufficient communities. When McLaren heard about Gloriavale, he knew he had to visit and emailed asking for permission.

Unexpectedly and several months later, he received a reply inviting him to stay.

After spending time with Gloriavale founder Hopeful Christian, formerly Neville Cooper, McLaren said he was left alone to take pictures.

It's not the first time Gloriavale has been caught on film. It's featured in top-rating television documentaries. McLaren believes it shows people are fascinated with what goes on in communities where the way of life seems alien to the modern world.

Gloriavale has long been the subject of controversy after it was founded in 1969 by Australian-born evangelist Cooper who was jailed in 1995 for a year on sexual abuse charges.

Misty mornings at Gloriavale. Photo / Cameron McLaren
Misty mornings at Gloriavale. Photo / Cameron McLaren

Concerns have been raised about the education of children, especially girls, while those who leave are ex-communicated and former members claim access to the outside world is heavily restricted. In 2015, Prayer Ready, a 14-year-old girl with Down syndrome, died after choking on her dinner.

McLaren said he is well aware of the concerns and agrees accusations of wrongdoing and unlawful activity need investigation.

"I have been asked about the accusations and I said, 'look around, I bet there are people who have done much the same things but they're not the victims of persecution".

Cam McLaren's photos are on display in Gloriavale at Black Asterisk Gallery from February 17-28.

- NZ Herald

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