Sharni Jayawardena is a photographer and a documentary filmmaker with decades of experience working in the visual media. In this interview, Sharni talks about the power of storytelling and her engagements with audio slideshows, photography exhibitions, and documentaries that bring to public attention diverse untold narratives from the four corners of Sri Lanka.
How did you become interested in doing audio slideshows, combining photography, interviews, sound effects, and music to tell stories?
By sheer accident, I came across the website One in eight million in 2010. It was the first time that I had seen this being done – combining still photographs with people’s narratives. The website was linked to the New York Times. For an entire year, every week, One in eight million featured a character, an individual, from New York City; each person unique, extraordinary, and each story personal and captivating. It was particularly interesting the way the stories, representing the diversity of the city, were told: reflective, amusing, passionate, hopeful. And it was in black and white. Each story was only about three minutes long but it drew you – and held you. In audio slideshows you can really look at the image. After years of working with the moving image I realized how the still image can be more compelling. Even the soundtrack becomes more evocative. One in eight million was my inspiration to start making audio slideshows. And I haven’t stopped. Very slowly I started doing stuff with still photography, and actually influencing people who wanted to make documentaries with me to create audio slideshows; to relate their stories through this medium. I still continue to make video documentaries, but I consider still photography my preoccupation.
But you started as a video editor and a documentary filmmaker …
Yes, I started off as an editor, a technical video editor. But I always wrote. I liked to write from the time I was a student. While doing video editing, I would also write scripts. That was an unusual combination. Then very gradually I switched to directing and writing. That seemed to be more logical. But I think my experience as a video editor guided much of what followed. As a director, I knew what I had to do. I knew what an editor needed, to put a sequence together.
I started my professional career at Worldview in Colombo when Sri Lanka was still fairly new to television. We were trained first in Colombo by Norwegian broadcasters and later in the Netherlands at the Radio Nederland Training Centre. We were exploring a medium that had its particular language and was already established in a lot of other countries.
Not less importantly, I got to work with people from different disciplines. For example, Dayananda Gunawardena, the dramatist and a wonderful human being. And there were many Sri Lankan filmmakers who started to straddle film and television — making public service documentaries and drama. I think I was in the right place at the right time and had the good fortune of working with Lester James Peries, Sumitra Peries and Tissa Abeysekera on their television productions.
Then I worked at Young Asia Television. That was a fabulous experience. A huge learning curve. I was producer of a programme series on the environment called Mihisara and on the arts called Sivuseta. A range of filmmakers collaborated with YATV to produce television drama series on critical issues. Asoka Handagama’s Take this Road and The East is Calling were two brilliantly insightful series I can’t talk enough of.
Today when we work in editing facilities in Sri Lanka we barely see women these days. Is that because the technology changed? There were quite a few women editors then like Avanthi Sahabandu, Sumitra Peiris …
Yes, Avanthi Sahabandu was Sri Lanka’s first female video editor. Sumitra Peiris of course was a film editor. Yes, I don’t think there are women film or video editors currently in Sri Lanka. I can think of no real explanation for this. But I believe there are women directors who get very involved in the editing process. I think I am one of them, but it is always a joint effort with the editor. I am open to new influences. I like to observe, learn from and work with people who have started doing things differently, many of them very young.
When did you first start holding a camera and taking photos?
In my twenties. I was already knee-deep in video. I bought myself a Pentax. I used it for many years and passed it on to a friend when I could afford a more advanced camera. That’s when I switched to Cannon.
I consider myself a documentary photographer. Not a conceptual photographer. Although I guess there are conceptual elements that I might create or capture when I take a photograph.
I want to start experimenting more, doing more photography in low light conditions, for example. I invested in a good tripod, but I’ve never used it. As a documentary photographer I am often in a hurry, particularly when covering action or activity, a ritual or a protest, when something is happening all the time. I possibly inherited the need to capture not just the moment but also the sequence/consequence in a systematic way from my years as a documentary filmmaker. So sometimes I don’t take the time to sit and stare. I want to do more of that.
How did you pick up on the technology of photography? Although you make art with it, it is a technology.
I followed a course conducted by the Photography Society of Sri Lanka at the Lionel Wendt. But I think it is also my experience in the filed of video documentaries. So there’s already some knowledge about lenses, apertures. About the use of light. About camera angles and framing.
Then I read about technical and other aspects of photography. I consider Susan Sontag’s writing on photography as essential reading for any documentary photographer.
I’ve also learnt a lot from friends who are photographers. There are many contemporary Sri Lankan photographers who delight and inspire me, and I am full of admiration for photographers like Dayanita Singh and Vivian Maier.
Could you elaborate on your 30 Years Ago project?
To remember Black July, Groundviews brought together artists, activists and theorists, to explore how deeply 1983 anti-Tamil riots shaped our imagination and our lives. The project was called 30 Years Ago and I was commissioned to look at Black July from the perspective of the Muslim community. I worked with Silma Ahamed to produce The Next Page, a series of audio slideshows.
During the immediate post-war period of rapid urban development and city beautification, in 2011, you and Tarika Wickremeratne documented the culturally diverse Slave Island area of Colombo in the project Walkabout: Slave Island. Could you elaborate on this project?
Yes, this too was a collaboration with Groundviews. Tari and I worked on the audio slideshow series together. Tari is a wonderful photographer and an excellent writer. People in Slave Island were living under the threat of eviction. There were many concerns but people were not weighed down by them. There was still hope then. But we knew things were changing very fast. We realized when we were doing our research that we couldn’t capture Slave Island in black and white. It had to be in colour. It’s such a vibrant place. It was a matter of finding people in the area to introduce us to other people who in turn would introduce us to others. We wanted to represent the diversity of the place, people who were commuting for work, people who lived there, people who wanted to speak their minds.
In 2014, your photography exhibition Invoking the Goddess documented devotion to the goddess Pattini/Kannaki in Sri Lanka, collaborating with Anthropologist Malathi De Alwis. What was the research and travel process that led to the exhibition?
This happened because I worked with Malathi. And what a learning experience it’s been working with her. She added value to the project. She gave perspective and direction to what we were documenting.
Pattini/Kannaki is a goddess much revered in Sri Lanka, but a large number of Sri Lankans, including the devotees, have been unaware that she is a shared goddess. Tamil Hindus know her as Kannaki and Sinhala Buddhists as Pattini. We wanted to document devotion to the goddess across the country and share our experiences more widely. This meant exhibitions and workshops, as well as a website. It’s a work in progress. We would like to publish a book in the not too distant future. We are working towards it.
We had been working on the project for about a year when the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development gave us a twelve-month grant to continue the work. We’ve exhibited the work at the Harold Peiris Gallery in Colombo, the Jaffna University, the Eastern University, the India International Centre in New Delhi, the New York University, the University of Chicago and several other local and international locations.
Malathi and I would have long conversations after long days at devales and kovils. We visited Kannaki Amman shrines in the East, particularly in the month of Vaikasi – from mid May to mid June. The festivals in each kovil – spanning 2, 5, 7 or 9 days, enact specific moments from Kannaki’s life story. We have been to Panama several times, to see the An Keliya. It is a ritualized game that is performed to venerate the goddess Pattini-Kannaki. It involves a form of tug of war, using sambhur horns or wooden hooks, between two teams of men. Panama is a Sinhala-Tamil mixed village and one of the few places in Sri Lanka where this ritual continues to be performed. We’ve visited places of worship in all corners of the country, but there is still more exploring to do.
Find out more about Invoking the Goddess:
You’ve worked with different organizations on issues ranging from gender to the environment. What are some of the key work you have done?
A few examples: I worked with Care International Sri Lanka, creating communications products for their extremely creative project called EMERGE. It’s about empowering men to engage and redefine gender equality in the North and East of Sri Lanka. I was the photographer on the archival project Herstories of Resilience and Hope – which documented women’s narratives from both the South and the North of Sri Lanka – highlighting women’s strength in the face of adversity. The project was conceptualized and led by Radhika Hettiarachchi and implemented by the Vilithu Centre for Human Resources Development. I was also the photographer on the project that followed, a community memorialization project called Memory Maps, also led by Radhika and implemented by Search for Common Grounds. And recently, I experimented with black and white photography on a documentary I directed for the National Peace Council, titled the Wronged Right to Security and Justice that included narratives of loss, pain, survival and the failure of the law. I’d like to do more work in black and white.
What is it like to work as a freelance photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker?
Freelancing allows you a certain degree of choice. But at the same time, you need to make a living. And you also need to buy your lenses! So, that is a problem. You tend to take on too much. This is a conversation that freelancers have when we get together. But I am slowly learning to space things out.
When I look at your projects, it’s not like you just take a camera and take a shot and that’s the end of it. There is a whole process of research, travelling, talking to people, interviewing. As a photographer, how do you deal with all those components and also take photographs?
I tend to work in a team. If I work with a certain organization, there will be a field-based team or individual who acts as a guide. It’s important not to intimidate or pressurize people. Photography can be intrusive. We can’t ignore the fact. The sort of projects I do, assignments I take on, require time to explain why we are doing what we are doing to the subjects of our photography and listen to what they have to say – and give people the space to present themselves the way they want to. I can’t be comfortable as a photographer if the people I am photographing are not comfortable about being photographed. This is particularly crucial when I have to communicate through a translator. I’ve done a lot of work in the North and East, I feel it would be good to have more people from the area working in the field of photography and film. Sri Lanka needs film and photography schools that are based in the provinces – perhaps linked to the universities. I think the internet is helping make things more democratic, but that’s not enough.
Any future projects you are hoping to do or are involved in?
Actually, I have a sort of plan, or perhaps it’s a wish. I would like to collaborate closely with the person or persons who would be the subject of my next documentary, whether it is photography or video. And take our time creating it.
And yes, I would like to do more work that I initiate myself.
Date of Interview: 28 July 2017
Interviewer and main photo: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage