Sri Lanka’s photographic history exists in glimpses, centred on a partial narrative that has perhaps been unintentionally centred on the work of a handful of elite practitioners. The task of documenting what little endures of a long and vibrant history has become increasingly challenging. It is one confronted by the overwhelming limits of both chance and measured inconsistent archiving that speak to the privileging of certain histories over others and hierarchies of value, coupled with tropical weather that is inhospitable to preservation. While the scholarship on the island has been preoccupied with questions of the postcolonial nation/state, contending political imaginaries and its entanglements conflict, the role of photography and its manifold expressions and possibilities for understanding these remain unexplored.
There exists a picturesque evocation of poetic languor in images of 20th century Ceylon/Sri Lanka captured by its few, but well-known photographers, Lionel Wendt (1900 – 1944), Reg Van Cuylenburg (1926-1988), and Nihal Fernando (1927 – 2015) among others. In the sun-stippled waters of ancient reservoirs, glimmering peridot fields of rural idyll, serene granite giants emerging from tangled jungles, the blurs of playful elephants, and slick brown bodies whose identities and interlaced subjugations and indignities have been glossed over in silver gelatin, we see the Indian Ocean island incarnated as paradise. Colonised by the Portuguese (1505), the Dutch (1640) and British (1815-1948) over centuries, the British colonial project in particular sought to conjure the island as an Edenic ‘landscape of desire’ highlighting its lush tropical topography ripe for colonial pickings.
In its postcolonial guise, this visual language of colonial photography would carry through to the island’s vision for itself; as nation-state and economy. Indeed, such boldly orientalist photographic conceptions, were assumed as much as unsettled by its ‘native’ photographers. As Wendt delved into a surreal world of lithe bodies ensnared in the dream-like landscape, Cuylenburg attempted to break with the tranquil, punctuating the picturesque with the appalling; a viscerally gutted sea turtle upturned on a beach, a mendicant whose leg is swollen with lymphatic filariasis. Fernando’s personal endeavour to document the island’s rapidly disappearing natural and cultural heritage saw to an adoring reclaiming of the landscape, wistfully and tirelessly seeking out the remains of its ancient lithic civilisations.
Following independence, Sri Lanka would become bloodied by two conflicts that would shape its present; a Marxist armed revolt in the Sinhalese-majority South (1971, 1987-1989), and an armed struggle for an independent state in the Tamil-majority North (1983-2009). These tussles would soon alter its photographic representations to one of ‘paradise under siege’. Its bodies would become manifested as heroes, militants and victims, while the tenacious tropes of colonial photography would become wielded with new political intent and vigour in competing hegemonic narratives and state-building projects. Grim depictions of war and violence would come to denote the island, as seen in the work on Stephen Champion.
What becomes evident in delving into the sparse scholarship on the island’s photographers, one that only rarely extends beyond Lionel Wendt, is that Sri Lanka’s photographic history remains mired in its capital Colombo, overshadowing the vibrancy of practice elsewhere in the island. The everyday photographies that emerged out of studios and the hands of ‘unknown’ enthusiasts remain overlooked in favour of work by European practitioners such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Joseph Lawton or Colombo-based elites such as Wendt who continue to be privileged in the already scant writing of the island’s multifaceted, but ultimately unwritten photographic histories.
Jaffna at the Heart of Early Ceylonese Photography
Jaffna, often evoked as the cultural and political heart of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community was also central to the narrative of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, and has consequently been defined visually and otherwise in relation to the war and Tamil nationalist political demands. However, Jaffna, also occupies a significant but overlooked place in Ceylonese/Sri Lankan photography.
Recollections of local developments in the photography of local practitioners remain in the memories of older photographers and aficionados, vexed further by the absence of sustained efforts at archiving in a climate that is especially unkind to the photographic print. In spite of the many displacements of war, older studio photographers in Jaffna recounted with pride the lineage of their practice, and their town’s place as ‘Ilankayilaye First! (First in Lanka!)’ The Jaffna peninsula was home to two eminent early Tamil photographers Henry Martyn (1812-1861) and Swaminathar Kanagaratnam Lawton (1851 – 1919), both students at the Batticotta Seminary, where American missionaries are said to have introduced photography. These pioneers would become well-known both locally, and as revealed by Lawton’s published essays on various technical experiments, internationally. Their names linger in eponymous streets, now obscure to most – Martyn Road, off Jaffna Town’s Main Street and Lawton Road in Manipay, indicating also their place among the local elites. Among town’s elderly studio photographers their names are still remembered and revered.
Writing on early photographic practice in Jaffna, Ismeth Raheem outlines the remarkable efforts made by these photographers; Lawton even going so far as to enlisting village craftsmen to manufacture a camera locally. In a period where only sparse information is available on the work of local practitioners who were afforded very little recognition in a colonial context, the Manipay-based founder of S.K. Lawton & Co (1876) was noted for his talents as a photographer in Jaffna and Colombo. Photographs taken by Lawton’s studio were featured in Arnold Wright’s 20th Century Impressions of Ceylon, an illustrated volume aimed at highlighting the island’s commerce and industry alongside its prominent families. The photographer and his studio practice were also afforded a dedicated entry.
Indeed, Lawton himself was actively invested in technical innovations pertaining to photography, writing to the London-based print and design journal, The Penrose Annual, on simple experiments for colour photography, the remedying the challenges of using of fish glue due to the effects of oxidation and the problem of fading photographs. Among Lawton’s most thought-provoking contributions to the journal is an article titled ‘When Was Photography Introduced into the East’ in the 1912-13, where he suggested that a daguerreotype apparatus, the first practicable photographic process, introduced by American missionaries may have been in use at the Batticotta or Vadukoddai Seminary as early as 1840, indicating in his view photography’s introduction to not only Ceylon, but the ‘East’ (Lawton, 1912-3).
An Imperfect Archive
Only a handful of examples of Lawton’s early studio photography remain in the archives of the local university; a smattering of group portraits, Hindu and Christian wedding photographs, pongal (Tamil harvest festival), harvesting activity and a scene of what appears to be a Christian girls’ school play. These only permit for the briefest of indications to the vitality and capacity of his practice and innovation. Jaffna’s significance in terms of photographic history of not simply Ceylon and South Asia, but a broader transnational history of photography and its technological development, can also be inferred by Lawton’s contributions to the Penrose. Little documentation exists as testament to the span of Martyn’s and Lawton’s work, and those that came after him in Jaffna and elsewhere in the island. Glimpses of what Sri Lankan photography might look like beyond the tropes of paradise remain confined and ultimately impossibly scattered in personal archives or lost to the scholar.
In the incredible 1950s, experiments of in macro photography made by Colombo-based Joe De Livera, an early importer of Leica cameras to the island, or in the remains of N. Rajaratnam’s Jaffna studio archive pared by war and displacement offering a rare view into the street life of 1970s Jaffna, only fragments of the island’s photographic history endure – albeit faintly. As these rapidly fade out of memory and material remnants spoilt by time and weather slowly discarded, we are left with forgetting and omissions so pervasive that we might not regard them as absences at all. In Sri Lanka’s overarching photographic articulation as paradise or paradise-under-siege, whittled and privileged by hegemonic narratives, anticipations, and the interwoven aesthetics of contending nations, require more comprehensive examination that an imperfect, strewn or altogether absent archive renders difficult.
In these absences the island might exist, one imagines by way of the fleeting encounters of what remains of its many photographies, in other pictures.