I have just returned from a very rewarding, albeit tiring, field trip to Hambantota. As part of a new project we are working on, we did a series of interviews and photo shoots, and we did and saw things that I may or may not reflect on later, time permitting, but I wanted to put down some initial thoughts while they're still fresh in my mind.
A few things struck me quite strongly during the course of our work. One was the instant and unquestioning hospitality extended towards us in every home. If 4 strangers with DSLRs and recording equipment walked into your house and asked you if they could hear your lifestory and take a few pictures, how would you react? I would have told us to kindly take a hike. Instead, we were offered tea, sincerity and heartbreaking stories. People warmed to us instantaneously, which had less to do with the kind of people we were, than the kind of people they are, I think. The women, especially, were eager to talk to us, to share their stories, once they got over their initial surprise. They shared their hardships, past and present, with no reservations; the men, I felt, were more straightforward and matter of fact, while the women may have glossed over the finer points; sometimes, it's just a matter of pride, after all.
The second point that stood out for me was how conspicuous I felt with my camera; correction, the Duckling's camera, which she kindly lent me for work purposes. During our first shoot especially (it got better after that), I felt like the most awkward, intrusive person in the world, taking pictures of a person while they tried their best to pretend like the camera wasn't there. To their credit, most of our interviewees liked having their picture taken, and were completely natural in front of the camera. For me, however, being the subject of a photograph is a very disempowering feeling, knowing what I know about social media, and understanding that when a picture is taken these days, you have absolutely no control over where it will end up. To do that to another person, to subject them to the same disempowerment I feel was a very uncomfortable feeling, that at the beginning completely overshadowed my joy of using a DSLR and of being able to take photographs with a purpose. It is also interesting to note how quickly I overcame that feeling; by our 8th and last interview, the 'person' had shifted from being an individual with feelings to a subject with unlimited photographic potential. While our company does have a policy of preserving the anonymity of individuals, (i.e. faces and recognisable characteristics are largely excluded in our work) which I am actually extremely proud of, it is still important to consider the process of taking photographs. I saw so many emotions move across the faces of our subjects, and I kept wondering what was going through their minds as we were taking their picture; did they feel uncomfortable, had they only consented out of politeness? I think these are things I need to think more seriously about when considering the kind of photographer I want to be and the kind of pictures I want to take.
In terms of lifestyles, I found the simple hospitality and traditions still very much alive in rural Sri Lanka. The people of this area were very much tied to the temple, and religion played a large role in daily life. Also important were the social structures and extended family as a support system. Many of them lived within walking distance of their brothers and sisters and the maha gedara; it wasn't uncommon to find three generations of a family in and out of each others' homes at any given time. For me, with my ideas of independence and, dare I say, Western concepts of single life, it was a jarring lesson in the value of a support system as you grow older.
It was a hard assignment. Some of the stories we heard were very sad. There were tsunami horror stories, death, loss. A few people cried; I felt like crying most of the time. We tend to say, in our urban snobbery, that rural lives are simpler lives. I found they are simpler in material terms but so much harder because of the weight they carry. There were people who built themselves up from scratch after they lost everything in the tsunami. There was a man who had lost both legs, who sat on a mat and watched tv all day, who said the only thing he loved was his son, who had died. And then there was the older couple who were still so obviously in love that they practically glowed. There were so many people who have lost so much, and yet take it in stride and never let it break their will. It makes me ashamed when I think of the things I worry about, the things I let sway me. If anything, life gives me daily chances for reevaluation and restoration. For that, for the chance to breathe and just be, I am lucky.