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Swaziland church battles demons

“What this church is doing is timeless and out of time.”

Kyle Meyer, a 28-year-old photographer from Manhattan, discovered a church in the small African country of Swaziland that harkens back to indigenous ancestral worship mixed with Christianity.

One of the tenets of religion that isn’t spoken of often, but used weekly by the Bekzandla Church of Zion in Swaziland, is the practice of exorcisms.

Four years ago, Meyer went to the small country about four hours east of Johannesburg, South Africa, to do a photo exposé on the conditions for factory workers in smaller countries. However, he noticed a weekly event near a small waterfall in the village where he was staying.

Intrigued, he watched for about a month from a distance as people were being baptized in the waters while a preacher slipped into a trance and spoke in tongues.

“You would hear this crazy chanting and chickens were clucking,” he said. “I needed to see what these people were doing.”

Meyer decided these intense baptisms, exorcisms, and sacrificial rituals should be the focus of his work. Still, he needed to get closer, and approached the group, who had also been watching him.

“I’m a pretty big risk-taker and I wasn’t going to let a good chance pass me by,” Meyer said. “At that moment, they took my hand and started to undress me and they pulled me into the waterfall and started baptizing me.”

Meyer was now part of the group, but not a full member of the church. However, he was allowed to photograph the members and the rituals involved in the services.

Despite the flamboyant colors worn by church leaders, Meyer decided to shoot in black-and-white, because he wanted to reflect the timelessness of what the church was doing. He wanted his photographs to reflect the scope of the religion (nearly 40% of the people living in Swaziland are Zionists), but still capture the faces of church members as they go through the process of cleansing their bodies and souls before baptisms.

Exorcisms are performed by Pastor Mdlalodze, the head pastor, and involved beating, biting and screaming in the ears in order to drive demons and spirits out of people. Exorcisms can last from five minutes to more than an hour, depending on the strength of the demon or spirit.

“The beatings can get extremely violent at points, depending on how far they are into the trance. At one point, they had tied a rope around a chicken’s neck and were swinging it around,” Meyer said. “I asked myself is this what I want to be shooting and the answer was of course it is.”

Meyer said he still stays in touch with church leaders and members, and despite being the only white man in an all-black church, feels welcome whenever he visits because of his familiarity with the rites and rituals.

“People will just stare because you don’t see a white man in a Zionist church,” he explains. “But I’ve been going there for so long, they don’t question me anymore.”

- Larry Frum, Special to CNN