Amalini De Sayrah

Amalini De Sayrah is a photo journalist passionate about social issues. Her photography projects capture diverse social themes, such as reconciliation, women headed households in the North, food cultures, mental health, and urban development. In this interview with Women Talk, Amalini talks about her photo journalism work, her work at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the role of social media platforms in engaging young photographers, and how she sees travel as an opportunity to look at the society around her through a humanistic lens. 

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Photo provided by ©Amalini De Sayrah

When did your love for photography start?

I remember when I was small I was told you are responsible for the family camera on trips and I was asked to take care of it. It was a tiny camera but I started taking an interest in how to take pictures. Eventually, we got a nice camera and I put a lot of effort into trying all the things, pressing all the buttons, and it just kind of happened over time. It’s difficult to pin point when. I don’t remember having any phone cameras at the time because back then phones were very basic.

You say you are a self-taught photojournalist. What was it like to learn the art of the camera on your own?

I learnt to use a phone camera. It was just getting used to buttons and angles. I do have a DSLR now. On the regular, I use my phone more because not everyone is comfortable around camera equipment. I do take my DSLR on to the field if I go for work. But because when you take the camera out it changes the relationships people have with you and they get uncomfortable, I use the phone on some occasions. I didn’t have anyone telling me this is how you do it; this is how you should compose it. I just kind of fiddled around with the camera and took photos wherever I was going. I picked up on how to take pictures that way.

A lot of people ask me do you do this for work? Where is the line between work and personal interest? And I say, very very blurred. I am personally interested in social issues. I don’t know whether that would be the same if I was not working in this field. I am now active in this field. And from the range of topics I have covered you can see that.

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Photography by ©Amalini De Sayrah

How did you get interested in photographing social issues?

I think because it is the field I came to work into. It required me to be up to date on what was happening on political and human rights affairs. That kind of led into me constantly reading up on news that was happening and social issues. Working in this field gives you a push to look at what is happening in the country and around the world. Being in this work allowed me to learn about some of these issues. Especially, things like urban development.

What kind of work do you do at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA)?

At CPA, I am responsible for the output on what the organisation does and to post that on our media platforms. A lot of these photography projects came about based on the fact that us wanting to get people interested in topics that we worked on regularly, such as disappearances, land in North, and the estate sector. These are areas that the organisation has been working on for a very long time. Those projects I was involved in were to generate some visual images for this work and to get people engaged in the topic. I also develop what we can do with grants. Sometimes you do have the space to cover interesting topics and pitch for interesting workshops for young people. Being in a place where there are three publications that are publishing high quality work on these kinds of issues, I have learnt so much on the job.

Could you elaborate on the Invictus project you did with women headed households in the North and East?

We were just throwing around ideas on how to do a feature for International Day on Violence Against Women. Something that we always wanted to cover was war widows and how life is for them now. Because of the field that we are in, we have access to contacts of people who are working in communities. Not just us going from Colombo and ‘Oh, I am here with my camera can I talk to you?’ We go through someone who works in the community so that they can trust us to work with.

That particular story brought some very powerful personal histories. My colleague and I knew that this is something you won’t forget. These are stories that we don’t hear much in the news. I feel a lot of the intricacies of postwar issues like land, disappearances, even the women, get lost in all the politics. And all the stuff that is covered is usually missing the point, the more civilian impact of things. That’s why it was so powerful to document those.

See photos in the Invictus series:

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Your photo project Rising Above dealt with the complex theme of urban development. What got you interested in covering this topic?

It’s really interesting because it is so close to where we are. It’s something that is still not talked about as much as it should be. It’s literally around the corner. But a lot of people are still like ‘Oh, we are building a mega polis.’ There is that whole side of it that completely gets lost in the talk about these development plans. It’s such a shame that we are sacrificing all this history for these modern buildings.

Your project Flavour Profile captured the stories, people, and processes behind Colombo’s gastronomic culture where you photographed food and eateries to tell a bigger story about everyday life.

We went to a couple of places that we really liked to eat from and we realised that we were going back to for something more than just the food. And we were surprised at how many people were willing to share the back stories of their food. We enjoyed going to everyday places like the Nanas and talking to the owner. The flip side of everyday life is that most people don’t see something that is this normal.

In another project, you photographed the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Angoda, as a way to raise awareness on how stigma becomes a barrier to mental health in Sri Lanka. Could you elaborate on this project?

Mental health is a topic that I am personally very invested in. I didn’t have a very solid idea of how it was dealt with here. And that was partially the reason of me wanting to know. I pitched to my colleague, can we possibly do an inside feature on the National Institute of Mental Health, Angoda. A lot of people approached and thanked us for writing that. You know how people talk about mental health here. The moment someone takes their own life the internet goes completely bizarre. That’s the kind of response there is. That was a learning experience in terms of how much we still have to do. We have systems in place for healthcare but the main thing getting in the way is how people think about it. It’s really sad.

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Photography by ©Amalini De Sayrah

The project Lost in Translation dealt with the shortfalls of implementing Sri Lanka’s official language policy. What was this project about?

The language project is again something I got because of the work of CPA. They did campaigns on how to get trilingual boards for buses. Something as simple as that. It’s those little things that you don’t really think about. The more you dig into it the more you find out about the shortfalls in the system where it’s supposed to be in place. The little problems that people face and because that little thing is not addressed, where do you start? This is also something that needs to come from the top. And if the top is not taking an interest? That is the thing with most these cases.

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Photography by ©Amalini De Sayrah

A space for faith project covered reflection of religious freedom for Muslims in Sri Lanka. What did you discover during this project?

It started with asking a couple of young Muslim friends on how they felt about worship. And I felt that I need pictures to illustrate this article. I took a camera and went down to Aluthgama where the riots had happened a couple of years ago. And we weren’t sure how we were going to be received. I am from an NGO. We weren’t sure how it would have gone down. But it was quite interesting. They showed us the oldest mosque in the country. But I think what was more important was the way young people were responding. When I asked them they would give me long answers, which is what is recorded in the article. It was interesting to collect those perspectives.

Koothu to Kolam: an island in sound was more about music and culture in Sri Lanka?

We were invited to the Galle Music Festival. We are used to seeing Bharatha Natyam and Kandyan dancing regularly. There are different kinds of music from the hill country. I was intrigued to hear it. I was also introduced to all the people who were taking part. The music is linked so much to communities and history. It’s not just about coming there and performing at the festival. There is such a personal connection to it. That was an interesting experience for me.

The project Convergence on religious diversity juxtaposed people’s harmonious engagements with two of Sri Lanka’s most significant religious and cultural landmarks. What did this project attempt to capture?

I admittedly pitched the idea because I had not been to Sri Pada or to Kataragama. And I was wondering how can I fit these two into a story. The common factor was that both places are central points for people of multiple religions. We photographed it in such a way that it illustrated the unity factor. It was interesting to listen to the distances people travel with kids and the elderly to worship these places. They put a large amount of commitment into making the journey once or twice a year. We asked a lot of questions and also observed the rituals happening around, which was interesting for me.

You have also covered the complex issue of disappearances in Sri Lanka in the project Bring them home.

Disappearances is one of the first issues on that I worked with CPA because we were still having the disappearance commission at the time and they were monitoring it. And it was my first proper exposure to postwar realities in the country and in the east coast itself. A lot of us were born and grew up in the Western Province and were schooled in Colombo. A lot of these issues are stuff that we probably don’t think about unless you are a certain type of person or you worked in a certain type of sector. The worst part was knowing that the systems that were set up to fix these issues were so futile. There were these elderly mothers coming and pouring their hearts out and you are just frustrated about what can I do. Can I do anything? And constantly when I hear a story I am like how can I help.

See photos from Bring them home:

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What drove you towards social photography, focusing on various sociocultural aspects of life in Sri Lanka?

There is so much that we don’t know. That is part of the reason why I get so interested in these issues because I didn’t know that these problems existed and I want to make sure that all the people know these exist. I am also just learning about some of these issues now. When you are talking about stories like this you do feel helpless. I am taking these pictures and is telling this story going to make any tangible difference? And you are stuck in this moment of conflict. I think because a lot of the news that you hear on the regular are very politicized and contentious in that larger sense. That’s not to say that we don’t hear stories about human interest. You just need to say it in a way to ensure that people will care about it. I think mostly because a lot of people kind of assume that just because we have an economy that is growing fast and because we don’t have a conflict anymore everything is okay. Assuming everything is okay means that you don’t pay attention to the little things and the more things you don’t pay attention to the more things you are pushing under the carpet. In my capacity, I try to just bring attention to the fact that we should be talking about these issues a bit more.

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Photography by ©Amalini De Sayrah

Is photography a good way to do that?

I think yes. Visuals are important because people very truthfully don’t read long harangues anymore. But at the same time there is so much so that you can do with a photograph. Especially, if you can’t take a picture of a person or a place, when they don’t want their identities to be revealed because the circumstances are such. But visuals help people to engage. A photograph that shows how it affects the real people as opposed to statistics, that is what gets people more interested in reading.

You are also an avid traveller. Does travelling help you engage with your camera?

Definitely. When you travel you see new places. You have to adjust your perspectives to a new place. At the same time, you meet a lot of interesting people. At least, that is the way we do it. Because we are in buses, trains and small guest houses. You meet so many people along the way and it definitely gives you perspective in terms of how good people can be and you are really humbled by how kind people are and how they come around to help in the middle of nowhere. That is something very beautiful and also because you see areas in the country. In Sri Lanka, travel is portrayed with beautiful landscapes, nice hotels. But for me, travel has helped me see not so much that side but how much that is all covering up the reality. Even when you go to rural areas, rural as in not like five hours away from Colombo but even just an hour out of Colombo, you see how families live in poverty. If you go down-South, for many it is like a holiday escape. But women have lost their husbands because they are fishermen who have been lost at sea. There are areas affected in the hill country by landslides. In the east coast, there was the tsunami. Everywhere you go, there is so much more to this place than just as a destination. Capturing that other side is really important to me and that’s what I keep doing.

We did this story about the other side of tourism. We as a country kind of prioritise these tourist arrivals and hotels and nice places but there are people and places that get left behind. Especially in the east coast, you prioritise building these priced hotels because you want tourists to come. But there is so much going on about families that are not resettled. So, why these kind of priorities? And the way that people are treated to satisfy this upper bracket.

So, it depends on how you travel, what you want to see when you travel, and how you travel. Even when you go somewhere pretty, I just wonder, the towns are really small and people’s houses are very basic. What do young kids do in these places? Such questions come to mind when I do go to places.

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Photography by ©Amalini De Sayrah

People and portraits seem to have a prominent place in your photography work. What got you in the direction of photographing people?

I do try to include people in all my pictures because me taking a scene is nothing without the people who are experiencing it at the time. Say there is a sunset happening. The sunset is nice, but for me at least how are people experiencing that scenery? What I really love doing when I travel is to show how tiny we are in size compared to some of the landscapes here. You feel really small. That’s why I tend to sometimes place people in ways that they look really tiny. That sense of scale of how small we are. The scene only means something because it is linked to someone’s experience. Even with the mosques we photographed, sure these are architecturally beautiful but it is more about what it means to someone who go there. I mainly photographed the hands of women in Mannar because we couldn’t mention any of their names and show any of their faces. Because there were security concerns. But to make it more human, even when faces could not be shown, I tried to show that there are real people behind the things we talk about.

What is the role of social media, in your case, Instagram, where you have a strong presence, in allowing photographers, in particular young photographers, to express themselves?

I use Instagram so much because it keeps you activated. It gives me a platform to express these things. I do think it gives you a ridiculously powerful platform to influence whatever you want to influence. I think that’s why it is so important to post things that can add value to any discussion. If you are going to take on a certain responsibility to address a certain issue, you need to do it properly because pictures have a huge followership. Earlier, if it was just a Facebook page for photography or Flicker a lot of the younger people may not have taken an interest in photography – all their phone photos would have just been saved in their phones. But now they are on par with someone who has got a DSLR or a thousand photos. There maybe a difference in followership. But there is still a place where they don’t feel left out. I think that is important because it encourages a lot of young people to come out and put a lot of effort into pictures. They start to think about how I take pictures, how I post it, how I caption them, which is a good thing. A lot of young photographers I have met over the last few Instameets, people have been able to get into photography because of having Instagram to express themselves.

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Photography by ©Amalini De Sayrah

When women tell stories is there a different?

When women tell stories about other women of course there is a difference. There is a higher chance of it being a lot more in tuned with certain struggles or listening for smaller details, solely because you understand where she is coming from. Or you may not have experienced it but you can identify with them closely. It’s also a really humbling thing to see that they have gone through so much. And I am like how do I communicate this without sounding like some inspirational speaker.

As a woman, did having the ability to photograph and tell stories empower you?

Having the ability to photograph and tell stories is empowering in a way that even though we have a tiny presence on the internet we are putting our voice across. You have access to tell your story and so you can use your voice to tell something good. Depending on how you do your work, it gets your voice and the voice of another person and a community across for someone who might not have a voice. If you are in the field of this kind of photo journalism or working on social issues it is so much more important to let that voice carry through.

Any current or future projects to look out for?

In terms of photography, I volunteer with this group called Building Bridges. Through that, we do art and creative activities for kids in different areas. You know how the schools are here. You just go to school and you learn. But we try to do things that are fun and there are no rules. They are so used to doing what they are told. That’s something that I am working on long-term. I am hoping to do a small series on photography and photo journalism with a school, teaching kids the basics of how to take pictures and how to tell stories with your pictures. As much as it is good that journalists from Colombo are going to the field and telling stories, me and my colleagues would love to see young people from anywhere doing that themselves.

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Photography by ©Amalini De Sayrah

Follow Amalini’s work on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/amaliniii/?hl=en

Follow Amalini’s photo journalism work: https://amaliniii.wordpress.com/photo-essays/

Date of Interview: 9 August 2017

Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage 

 

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