On the beach a tourist couple are ankle-deep in the surf, and she’s performing the kind of frolicking you only perform at the edge of the sea if you have a camera’s gaze upon you. The boyfriend, a man in his late thirties, is insta-framing the early sunset behind his partner using his phone, and while the waves make it difficult to hear for sure he seems to be encouraging her into some serious hair tossing and general beachside attractiveness. He looks most sastisfied when she gets too deep into the water for complete comfort, when she has to regain her balance and laughs, or is splashed by the more vigorous waves; these are surfing waters, the incoming wash is often unpredictable. Isn’t this crazy? says her laugh. Aren’t we crazy? She tries her most daring move yet in the shifting sands: a full double twirl in the water, arms outstretched. But her boyfriend doesn’t see. Something has arrived on his phone – he has shifted it into profile on his palm – and he walks away from the waves, away from her, distracted by whatever has beamed into his inbox.
Three Japanese women in shades and shorts, perhaps in their 30s, are posing in the centre of the marbled square that draws you in to the Bendictine abbey. In the blank heat of late morning there’s nothing of the breeze that smooths the mountaintop, but all the same these three are giving it some serious energy. Two of them throw frozen shapes like Charlie’s Angels or the Bee Gees or some shit: jaunty hips, shoulders slanted. Extended arms point to multiple architectural features, but eyes are directed steadily down the lens of the camera, held by the third woman at the edge of the square. The facade of the monastery rises in the background, the same colour as the hillside, almost as if hewn from the rockface. A frame is taken, the camera changes hands, the subjects re-arrange themselves wordlessly into an equally outrageous formation and hold, playing statues for as long as it takes the picture to be taken. Sometimes it takes quite a while. They keep holding the pose, always with minimal-to-zero expression on their faces.
He’s an older gentleman, northern European, gaunt and pale and made twice his natural width by a loose floral shirt; she’s from south-east Asia, younger, plumper, shorter, smilier. They stand beneath a scant bright blossom on the path into Kandy’s botanical gardens while their guide, a Sinhalese force of nature happy to shout at the top of his voice about every floral feature in sight, fusses around them, moving them this way, that way. He eventually sets the couple a good foot or so apart. They seem to want to get closer to each other but their Sri Lankan guide isn’t convinced. He then dashes several paces back and drops into the most amazing shooting position: right leg extended forward and bent at the knee in a lunge, left leg anchored as far behind his arse as it’s possible to get, camera pushed out with both hands at maximum arm’s length. It’s somewhere between yoga pose and the starting position for a forgotten sport, and fair play, it gets a massive surprised grin from his subjects, and probably a good picture.
Horton Plains 2014
At the edge of the plains is a sheer drop of 1 km as the highland suddenly falls away to forest. A common pastime is to walk the few kilometres over the cool grasslands to the cliff, and contemplate the immense vista. There are a few foreign folks, brought in on zipping tuk-tuks from Ella and Nurawa Eliya – but you have to get here well early in the day for the best conditions, and for the most part the hikers are Sri Lankans. However, nature plays tricks: often the weather systems will throw a rising cloud flat up against World’s End, meaning you’re faced with a view of nothing but eerie blank white. So today people stand in groups in front of the remarkable nothingness and have their pictures taken. The ledge at World’s End is surprsingly shallow. It’s not all that easy to get a group shot with any surrounding context in the frame; plants, trees, rocks, even the ground. So most photographs will show a row of Sri Lankan faces – serious and matter-of-fact as they so often are in pictures of their travels – against what might as well be a big whitish wall.
Nuwara Eliya 2014
The British colonists loved this place in the hill country of an otherwise sweltering Sri Lanka, because the climate meant they could build homes with glass windows, and a golf course or whatever. So we’re in a country club-style hotel, creaky wooden floors and soft furnishings, pictures of Queen Victoria, etc. In one of the day parlours a Japanese woman in her late 40s is adopting serious and silent fashion-mag positions, variously reclining on sofas, perching at leadwork windows and gazing into the middle distance. She’s wearing custom-tailored bottle green clothes, a silk scarf. Her photographer is a Japanese fellow of the same age burdened with a shocking amount of professional equipment hung around his neck, and the face of a deep-sea angler fish. After every single frame, every shot, the woman swishes to his side and looks at the camera display. Neither of them seem to react to anything they see, or audibly converse. They continue to move around the hotel taking pictures in this fashion for at last an hour.
You’d know where you were even without looking up. Across the viewing platform, people from all over the world are are extending their arms wide, aping the statue of the redeemer close behind them, the Christ that watches over the southern zone of Rio De Janeiro. They’re all struggling with an immediate problem of scale and framing: to fit in both subject and statue you need a fish-eye lens or similar, and unless you’re some kind of photo ninja you won’t have one on you. The solution most people arrive at is for the photographer to crouch or lie on the ground. So the place looks like a piece of performance art. Men in haiwaiian shirts are laid flat out on the blisteringly hot stone slabs, their mates gurning over them with hands far apart as if indicating the size of a supernaturally large fish they once caught. One woman is doing the whole Christ-arms thing without the tiniest crack of a smile. Some game souls, perhaps slightly confused in the heat, climb onto the head-height ledge around the monument’s plinth before throwing their arms open, as if that will make for a better image. The vast majority of the kids have it right, though. They’re not interested in pretending to be Jesus, they just want to look over the mountain’s edge at the gloriously noisy city below.
There’s no taking of photos allowed in the Community Tsunami Museum, and it’s not surprising – all they have are the pictures on the walls, it’s a true archive, a collection you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The most profoundly distressing images – of bodies piled into mass graves, of parents crying over their drowned children – are kept to one wall and a drape is pulled over this section when kids are present. The story is laid out over four small quiet rooms, dealing with geology, the devastation caused by the wave, the aftermath, and finally the reconstruction; of buildings, boats, lives, hope. Quietly and efficiently the museum staff give you the facts and figures: the number of dead in this village alone, the time the wave struck, the way the animals behaved, the number of orphans left behind that day. There are many pictures of stopped clocks, frozen at the time the wave hit the coast, making me think of pocket watches gathered after the Hiroshima bomb. In the final room there’s a photograph of a group of local kids by some railroad tracks, and all of them have cameras. They’re the chemical, analogue kind of camera that maybe you could have last bought on a western high street back in the late 90s, and they’re clutched in small hands with varying degrees of comfort and familiarity, but all of the children are grinning wide at something to the left of frame. The land behind them is still battered and cracked, but the background doesn’t matter in this picture. The future is somewhere in the foreground.