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Interview – Alys Tomlinson and her winning series “Ex Voto”

Barbara Silbe

Alys Tomlinson is an award-winning editorial and fine art photographer based in London. She was named “Photographer of the Year” at the prestigious Sony World Photography Award 2018. The World Photography Organization assigned the prize (25.000 $) to her winning series “Ex-Voto”, focused on religious devotions she found in many Christian pilgrimage sites worldwide. She often  photographed  anonymously and hidden places where pilgrims leave ex-votos as expressions of hope and gratitude, creating a tangible narrative between faith, person and the landscape. Taken at the pilgrimage sites of Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland) and Grabarka (Poland), the project encompasses formal portraiture, large format landscape and small, detailed still-lifes of the objects and markers left behind. Shot on 5×4, large format film, the images evoke a distinct stillness and reflect the mysterious, timeless quality present at these sites of great spiritual contemplation. People and landscape merge as place, memory and history entwine. All the images are taken in 2016/2017

Hi Alys, would you define yourself a photographer or an artist? And why?

I consider myself primarily a photographer or perhaps a photographic artist. My work is often heavily research-based and my latest project ‘Ex-Voto’ drew on my Anthropological studies, so maybe I would even call myself a photographer and researcher.

What is Photography for you?

It starts as a curious impulse or fascination and is driven by the desire to find out more about a certain subject or community. Photography gives me freedom to explore ideas and allows me to tell the stories of others, to discover the unseen and document that in a very personal way.

Tell me more about the project winner of the SWPA.

I’ve been working on ‘Ex-Voto’ for around five years, exploring Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland, France and Poland. The project is all shot on black and white, large format film and consists of three strands – portraits of the pilgrims, still life shots of the ‘Ex-Voto’ and the wider landscapes.

Tell me more about your feeling and mood when you realized you were named Photographer of the Year SWPA 2018

I was amazed and surprised, but also very happy that that the judges had seen meaning and depth in my work. To get this type of recognition for a project I have committed to for so long is hugely rewarding.

You are a great portrait maker, you put an extraordinary formalism in your landscape and you demonstrate an out of order capability to tell stories. What you like the most, and why, if you can choose?

I am always drawn to making portraits and find the connection you have with that person very interesting, as I am fascinated by people and how we relate to each other and our environment. However, I also love the stillness of photographing landscapes. With landscapes, it is often just me and the camera and I enjoy that solitude. I’m not sure that I can pick a favorite!

What surprised you most in this work on spirituality?

How open people were about their faith and how complex their beliefs were. I was also surprisingly moved at these pilgrimage sites, even as a non-believer there is a very special aura and unique feel when you are there.

You studied English literature before studying photography, do you think this first part of your schooling shaped your vision in art?

Photography is all about storytelling and I think my interest in literature and reading has shaped my work. The structure of good writing can be transferred to photographic storytelling. I am also very influenced by cinematography and film, particularly the work of directors such as Haneke, Tarkovsky and Pawlikowski.

Tell me something about your equipment, why do you use a huge Victorian-style single frame camera for this project?

It’s a very slow and considered approach, which means I have to think carefully about each shot. As the negatives are 5×4 inches, it allows for great detail. Also, the method of using large format is almost ritualistic, reflecting the religious subject matter.

How did you start your career and when?

After graduating from my BA degree, my first job was taking photographs around New York for the Time Out Guide, which taught me to be organized, creative and independent. I’ve been working as a professional photographer for around 10 years, combining commissioned work with my personal projects.

What’s the fun part of your job? and which one is the most demanding?

The most demanding is the dedication required and the need to hold on to the conviction that the work you’re making is of value. The most fun is meeting people I would never normally meet in my everyday life and taking off on photographic adventures, never knowing where it’s going to lead…

Which are your main future project after this important victory?

Winning the SWPA has instilled in me a need to prioritize my personal projects and not lose sight of that. I am hoping for a solo exhibition of the work and I’m also planning on making the ‘Ex-Voto’ project into a book which I’m very excited about, so I am currently looking at design options for publication.