'SISTERS', A MONOCHROME TALE

Gamini Akmeemana

What are islanders bringing to their island today? The 9th edition of the French Spring Festival in 2021 will be dedicated to explore this theme, showcasing a range of different insularities, that vary by their size, position, culture and conceptual understanding. Inspired by Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, real and imaginary islands have always been part of our geographical and literary understanding. The Festival aims to seek answers to ‘How can we grasp the defining characteristics of an island today?’ Gamini Akmeemana received first place for his photograph, ‘Sisters’, a monochrome image of two girls, side-by-side, looking directly into the lens of the camera. How does this image represent the island of Sri Lanka?

Journalist and photographer, Gamini Akmeemana was born in Colombo, 1958 and studied at Ananda College. Gamini is a self-taught artist, pursuing the mediums of creative writing, photography, filmmaking and editing. He has written many novels and short stories and has been awarded for his manuscripts including ‘Mirage’ in 1997. Recently, Gamini’s photograph, ‘Sisters’ won the French Spring Festival, ‘My Island’ Competition organized by The Embassy of France to Sri Lanka & Maldives together with ARTRA Magazine & Daily ARTRA. The Online Photography Contest was a part of the French Spring Festival 2021 (Jun - Oct), which is a multi-disciplinary festival fostering artistic links between France, Sri Lanka and the Maldives since 2012, ‘My Island’ aimed at providing a platform to inspire and showcase photography of aesthetic and conceptual excellence. In our conversation with Gamini Akmeemana, he reveals the journey of his artistic career, his inspiration and the stories behind his work.

Q | What prompted your creative journey?

A | After studying English literature at school, reading became a major passion. I was deeply influenced by translations into English and Sinhala of Russian classics, but the spark was ignited when I enrolled for English under the late Mr. M. I. Kuruvilla, a brilliant, inspiring teacher. My first writing job was as a feature writer for the Jordan Times English daily in Jordan. While working there, I ventured into writing plays, prose and poetry, but something inspired me to buy a camera too, and take up photography as a hobby. I think I fell in love with photography after looking at photography books in libraries – especially the Time-Life series, but also 19th century travel photography from all over the world.

Q | Who inspires you?

A | I can think of two inspirations behind all my creativity – my mother, and the world we live in. I began photographing people, everyday life and culture lovingly and obsessively as looking at the world as a photographer made me appreciate life at a deeper level. It also made me realize how transient all life and creation is, hence this sense of urgency to preserve what I see for posterity.

Q | You won the Gratiaen Award for you manuscript ‘Mirage’ in 1997. Elaborate on the story behind this manuscript and what it’s about.

A | My first novel The Mirage was based on the death of a Tamil socio-political activist in Jaffna by the LTTE. But I didn’t know either her or her family personally. I wanted to get this published in the UK, but eventually gave up the attempt, and have written a lot more subsequently. The hunt for a Western publisher for at least a few of my subsequent books has resumed, but I’m also thinking of Amazon. As for The Mirage, I’d like to work on it again before publishing. Time has shown me the flaws. Also, I have got acquainted with some of her family members recently, personally and through social media. That makes it more difficult emotionally, but I have a social obligation to publish this book one day, if only as homage to someone brave and uncompromising killed in cold blood.

Q | ‘Sisters’ was the winning photograph for the French Spring Festival ‘My Island’ Competition. Can you tell us about the photograph and what it means?

A | I was surprised when I won this photography competition – I’m not competitive by nature, and this is only the second or third competition I’ve entered in my whole life, and I may not do that again, either, at least not for a long time. But, having done photography since 1982 without any recognition and hardly any money, I wanted to see how other professionals viewed my work. I thought I might win a place because of my long track record, but winning first prize never entered my head.

Now that it happened, I’m happy, as the judges selected an old black and white photograph taken by me more than twenty years ago, and it managed to beat the digital competition. I believe I was doing a story on organic agriculture in a North Western province village, and saw these two girls accidentally. I never considered it as one of my best photographs. But what the judges said, and the analysis made by prominent writer and critic Mr. Eric Illayaparachchi in his essay has made me see it in a new light, and glad that I managed to stay on the right side of this ‘pretty pictures versus realism and its underlying beauty’ contest that runs throughout the entire history of photography.

My next goal is to find the two sisters in this photograph. I’m looking for that article I wrote so long ago as I’ve forgotten the exact location. I’m determined to find them somehow and present them with the enlargement promised to me by the French Embassy. Whatever their life is like now, I hope that will make them happy.

Q | You are both a journalist and a photographer. How do these two mediums influence you as an artist?

A | Writer or photographer? This has never been a soul-searching issue for me. But I know that many people are bothered by this attitude. Did I begin as writer or photographer? As I said, I started as a feature writer for a newspaper. But photography followed quickly. After returning to Sri Lanka from Jordan, I began writing features for The Island newspaper, and joined the photography desk on my own. Some were surprised and bothered by this. Over here, photographers are seen as ‘inferior’ to writers. But working as a press photographer was the best way to learn the craft, covering everything from news to sports and conflict reporting.

I joined the Daily Mirror as a feature writer. I didn’t join its photography desk but worked as a photojournalist for my own articles. Both writing and photography have become integral parts of my personal and artistic expression. I need both for my emotional wellbeing. Why should we think that writing fiction or whatever is more important than taking photographs? Not every word we write has lasting value. Of all the fiction, plays and poetry written over the past 100 years, only a fraction has survived. The same goes for painting. But many photographs taken long ago and forgotten in their family albums are now re-surfacing, with people buying them on EBay etc. Now with digital social media, the scope for preserving and disseminating photographs are immense, and film hasn’t disappeared, either. It’s this historical validity of even the most ordinary photograph which fascinates and inspires me. My goal now is to do a series of travel books, combining words and photographs. I believe every writer can be a photographer and vice versa if they put their minds to it.

How does ‘Sisters’ represent the island of Sri Lanka and what pictorial message does Gamini intend to convey? The monochromatic photograph presents an intriguing perspective, interpreted through the objects of the lens, the girls in petal-collared dresses in front of a mud hut. The dress in itself is one that is reminiscent of those worn in the past, its collar and belt representative of a homemaker’s sewing. We find, the photograph a potent reminder of the conventional Sri Lankan roots, the setting, a nostalgic reminder of places beyond the westernized capital. Gamini’s works have always aimed to tell the stories of Sri Lanka and thus presents such through his literary and photographic journey. 

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21st December, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings

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