Sri Lanka; Portrait Photography at it’s Finest

Words by David Wise and Lamia Hossain. Photographs by Lamia Hossain.

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The photos in this article were taken on a rest day during the recent Sri Lankan Airlines and LSR coast-to-coast adventure, a 650 km cycling and hiking exploration of the Indian Ocean paradise that is the island of Sri Lanka. There were five of us in the team, three travel writers from England, myself (a photographer from Canada) and LH, our local guide provided by LSR. The main goal of our journey was to become the first team of tourists to cross the country by human power alone but alongside that we aimed to record the journey, and the people we met, with a mixture of writing, film and photographs.

Now, the reality of making images whilst on the road is that the vast majority of destinations that a travel photographer will visit will already have procedures in place that will dictate how you interact with the local people. In short, if you want a picture of someone then usually you pay for it, and if you want to get a certain shot that will impress the folks at home, be they magazine editors or friends, then the likelihood is that you’ll have to set the shot up and direct your ‘models’ like it was a movie scene and then pay heavily for the pleasure.

I can understand the reasons for this and I certainly don’t condemn anybody for trying to make a bit of money from more affluent visitors. But my problem is that it’s simply not enough for me to take photos that are going to impress friends and magazine editors back home. I’m looking for something far more honest than that. I also need the process of taking photos to include an exchange of genuine emotions and positive energy, and for it to be a connection that’s way beyond a financial transaction.

I know it’s not easy to find a place where this can happen nowadays, and many a more experienced travel photographer would say it to be impossible. But in response to their claims I’d respectfully offer two words; Sri Lanka.

My thirty-day journey across Sri Lanka showed me that the people, wherever we came across them, were always very ready to happily join in with the great photographic game. Nobody ever refused a request for a portrait, money was never mentioned and everything was just so photogenic that it never entered my head to change a scene so that it might better please the people back home. It was a country offering as pure a photographic experience as you’ll likely to find; every place I walked I felt like I was the first person there to ever hold up a camera (although of course there had been thousands before me!) simply because the people where kind enough to put my wishes on an equal par with their own.

They acted like I wish more people would act. Sure, some of them might have been bored with having their photo taken by tourists, some might even have religious reasons for not wanting to have their image captured but they were all too well mannered, all far too interested in treating a visitor hospitably and all far too well balanced emotionally to put their own wishes before mine.

I’m sure that the Sri Lankan people have their own problems, everybody does, but the face they showed me was always a smiling one and the world that they lived in was full of colour and joy. On day 13 of our trip we took a break from cycling and visited a village at a nearby tea plantation. We walked into the village unannounced, poked our head into the crèche where a couple of older ladies were swinging babies to sleep in old sari hammocks and said hello. We were immediately invited for tea and within minutes a large group of children had gathered around us. Some very young ones were shy and hid behind the older others who let their curiosity take over and edged forward. I raised my camera, took a few pictures and found that the kids and their parents, who had subsequently joined us, got great joy out of looking at the results on my camera screen. It was clear that this was not just me taking something from them, it was all of us experiencing the act of photography together and all involved getting a pleasurable and positive experience from it.

In every similar situation anywhere in the world, someone at some point would mention money and the atmosphere would have an element of business to it and it would be clear, for me at least, when looking at the photograph later, that the subject was posing for money, not as a friend. In the photos I’m about to show you, and in every other series I took in Sri Lanka, it wasn’t like that, and I believe the photos show it.

The children decided what should happen, they stood in a group, they formed a line for individual portraits and they decided how long the session should go on for. In short, the photos show exactly what we experienced, rather than a westerners idea of what a remote Sri Lankan village is like (and if the photos happen to enforce any stereotypes, that’s because the stereotypes are true). We had tea and biscuits, we took some photos, everyone had a good time and the photos sum that up exactly. Not only are they in my opinion great portraits that I enjoy looking at, they also remind me of a wonderful afternoon that I enjoyed with some of the world’s friendliest, uncorrupted people.

For me, for a portrait to be great, it has to be freely given. Most photographers are satisfied if they get a catch light in the subject’s eye but I don’t find that enough. I need their eyes to show the exchange of good energy that passed between us.

We started the day with a truck ride up into the mountains that lay behind the LSR Watergarden Hotel at Belihuluya.

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Entering the village the creche seemed the busiest place, so naturally we headed for it.

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Then the Great Photography Game began…

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We had a break now and again so everybody could check the photos out on the camera screen.

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Then it was back to having fun…

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If you’re inspired to travel yourself to Sri Lanka, which is in our opinion the world’s #1 portrait photography destination, then check out the websites of Sri Lankan Airlines – www.srilankan.com - who offer the only non-stop flights to the island from Europe, and LSR – www.lsr-srilanka.com - the adventure tourism company who organised our tour. Both companies were fairly priced and offered good service and we’re happy to recommend them. 

If you’d like to see more of Lamia’s work please visit www.lamiahossain.com

For more of David’s work see www.davewise.biz

And to see a mini guidebook that they’re creating for photographers visiting Sri Lanka, see www.thephotographersguide.co.uk

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