Brings ‘optical consciousness’ close to you | Sunday Observer
Humanity & Earth Photography Exhibition:

Brings ‘optical consciousness’ close to you

13 September, 2020

The inauguration of the Humanity and Earth group photography exhibition by Goethe-Institute Sri Lanka was held recently at the Harold Peiris Gallery, marking the conclusion of the three-year long project engaged with two experienced photographers from Germany who mentored a group of young and diverse photographers sharing an equal passion and interest for environmental photography.

Although photography is an art form with a rich but often under recognised heritage in Sri Lanka, there are more and more emerging photographers pointing their cameras and mobile phones toward ecological grievances and highlighting mounting, unresolved conflicts between humanity striving for development and the natural environment. Having identified this emerging cultural trend, the Goethe-Institute decided to launch an island-wide open call for photographers with an ecologically conscious approach to their work, who were interested in joining a mentored road trip across the island.

Road trip

The project launched with an open photography call in 2018, which motivated young Sri Lankan photographers to submit work samples on the topic of environmental protection. German documentary photo-journalist Andy Spyra and German-Sri Lankan conceptual photography artist Liz Fernando, the two mentors of the project selected a group of talented young photographers, Tilaxan Tharmapalan, Shehan Obeysekera, Prageeth Wimalarathne, Munira Mutaher, Sandranathan Rubatheesan, Dilanka Bandara, Ramanathan Parilojithan, Tashiya de Mel and Reza Akram, who were invited to join the road trip.

The photo project began with a theoretical introductory event, led by Andy and Liz on storytelling at the Goethe-Institute in Colombo. Then the road trip began, taking the young photographers from Colombo via Kalpitiya to Ella and back to Colombo.

From these locations, various stations were visited, which exemplify the influence of the human on the environment and thus stimulate discussion about the relationship between human and earth and the issue of sustainability.

Among other places, the workshop participants visited the construction site of the artificial land reclamation project Port City, the 2016 collapsed Meethotamulla landfill, the analog forestry project at Bellipola, villages effected by the Uma Oya tunnel project and the area around the coal power plant, Norochcholai.

Speaking about the initiative of the Humanity and Earth photography exhibition and the immense guidance and support received from the two mentors throughout the process, Jan Ramesh de Saram, Cultural Programmer, Goethe Institute said, “The mentors, Andy Spyra and Liz Fernando, each coming from very different approaches to their discipline provided a wide spectrum of advice, ideas, inspiration and challenges to the group. Andy could share the feedback a photo editor of an international magazine might deliver, while Liz could give a sense of what art curators might be looking for in conceptual art photography. Between these poles and over the extended exchange of nearly three years many breathtaking and revealing images were captured and stories composed. During the Masterclass in 2019 , the numerous photographs produced on the road trip and with the successive seed grants were discussed and reviewed by all participants in great detail, paving the way for the distilled selection of visuals presented in this exhibition,”

As Ramesh elaborated further the Goethe-Institute will continue following these photographers’ development from this juncture and hopes to have contributed some useful learning and inspiration to drive the agency of ecologically conscious visual story-telling on the island. “On behalf of the Goethe Institute I would like to thank the mentors and group for their creative energy,” Ramesh further said.

Photography master-class

The seven day photography master-class took place in May 2019 near Unawatuna in southern Sri Lanka and was supervised by the mentors Liz Fernando and Andy Spyra. After the road trip, the photographers were encouraged to continue working on their projects. In order to enable the field visits the photographers were awarded a seed grant. The photographic material which emerged from these field visits was the main subject of the master-class. Specifically, the class focused on editing and redacting the images created in recent months so that they not only document the different environmental issues but told the stories of the respective sites.

Sunday Observer had the opportunity to meet the group of young, emerging photographers of Humanity and Earth exhibition and here what they have to say about their impressive respective projects:

Impact of dumping garbage and medical waste along the lagoon side of Batticaloa - Ramanathan Parilojithan

“As a social conscious person, believing that everyone should care for the environment and wanting to expose what is happening in my own region Batticaloa, I began my research titled ‘Impact of dumping garbage and medical wastes along the lagoon side of Batticaloa’ without any support before 2018. The main intention of my research was to study the destruction of fishery and water resources which result in an unstable livelihood for the families dependent on fisheries in my area. A large amount of garbage, medical waste and human body parts are being dumped surrounding the Batticaloa lagoon by people with political influence, Maantheevu hospital management and others” Ramanathan Parilojithan said.

Although Ramanathan’s research was based in Kattankudy, Eravur, Maantheevu and Valaiaravu he explained that the large part of the study was done in Maantheevu and Valaiaravu.

Through continuous discussions with the resource people and fellow photographers Ramanathan was able to closely observe the issues and completely understand the documentation. He located himself close to a fisherman’s family and followed them for a period and documented their day to day life. “My photographs are witnesses to the dreadful situation of the fishing families in the area who lost their livelihood and ended up doing aquaculture for their living in the period of 2018 – 2019,” he added.

Where the village edges the forest - Shehan Obeysekara and Munira Mutaher

As the creators of the project titled ‘Where the village edges the forest...’ explained, the project is rooted in the tensions and realities of the moment of transformation of a forest-dependent community steeped at the edge of the Knuckles mountain range, in Sri Lanka, on the border between wilderness and civilisation.

They selected the village Atanwala which lies at the base of the increasingly popular Manigala hiking route, and attracts a slew of tourists through the season. During their research they observed that in the last year, its first main road being built, its first shop set up, a house-front being converted to a car park for visitors, its first encounters with elephants, and a city dweller starting construction on his house in the midst of this mountain village.

“Us as city dwellers tussle the sky-rises with the desire to ‘getaway’ and retreat into nature. Humans see themselves as separate from the environment in contrast to them being integral parts of it; transforming their surroundings as they are transformed by it,” said Munira.

Tharmapalan Tilaxan focused his photographic essay on the environment pollution on the Gurunagar fishing jetty which is entirely covered with garbage and plastic waste. According to his introduction, the Marine Department has stated that 82 percent of the beach is completely polluted in the area. The pollution is not limited to the dock but also occurred in the surroundings of the whole village.

“As I observed, the dumping of garbage in the sea and the surroundings is mainly carried out by the very same people who live in this area. All their junk plastics travel through the canals and drainage and finally deposit on the coast. On this issue, I spoke to some of the members of the village community, but they are incredibly unaware of the consequences of dumping garbage and plastic waste in the sea and the premises where they live,” he added.

When was the last time you saw a wild river roaring through a landscape? - Tashiya de Mel

Tashiya in her series of photographs aims to explore the consequences of hydropower expansion on the Mahaweli river, and the cascading impacts on our natural world and the local communities that depend on it. Impacts which are not always visible, and some, deliberately concealed from the public.

“This includes the loss of endemic species and unique habitats, disturbance of migratory routes, displacement of local communities, and the growth of collateral industries such as mining, logging, and agriculture, and most importantly, the impacts on local communities who are being robbed of their birthright; the natural world that surrounds them,” she said.

While developing this series she travelled to parts of the Central province of Sri Lanka, home to lush tropical Montane forests and magnificent mountain ranges; pristine landscapes that are being destroyed in the name of short-term developmental gains.

”No other beings on Earth other than human beings have caused such a devastating, massive destruction to our natural habitat in the name of development in recent history,” says Sandranathan Rubatheesan.

In his series of photographs he discussed how humans depend on Earth but dig their own grave slowly but steadily by disturbing the natural habitat equilibrium. “At last, they would become the ultimate dust, buried in the sand or mixed in water and air. These images, made in the recent past during my travels around the island are my personal reflections of how humans interact with nature and my role as a witness to so many questions,” he says.