A Wanderer and a Memory Keeper | Sunday Observer

A Wanderer and a Memory Keeper

Sebastiao Salgado, the world renowned photographer said, “I am not an artist. An artist makes an object. I work in history, I am a storyteller.” Indeed, Sebastiao’s photos tell stories, reveal secrets, keep memories and preserve history. His photos are not just objects. They make the subjects immortal, their context eternal. These are the attributes that draw me to Tharindu Amunugama’s photography. He is a magician of sorts, for he captures not just time and space, but thoughts, feelings, emotions and preserves them for later use. With his lens, Tharindu Amunugama wanders all over the land, keeps memories, tells stories .

I ask him about his beginnings. “Growing up I was always sketching, especially the human figure. It was during the 30 year war, so travelling was pretty restricted. I was fascinated with photos of ancient temples and monasteries in magazines and books. Later, I left Sri Lanka to study in the UK. I was homesick and looked at photos of Sri Lanka even more, in order to feel connected. I was awed by the work of Nihal Fernando and Dominic Sansoni which influenced and inspired me tremendously.”

Upon his return Tharindu had bought himself a small ‘point and shoot’ camera and travelled around the island for about six months. “I photographed anything and everything. I was trying to recreate human symmetry” he says.Then the war had ended and most places which were earlier unapproachable opened up for travel. Places Tharindu had only read about earlier had become accessible and he realized that it was only when you actually experience a place that you get to understand the essence of it. From then onwards, with a better camera Tharindu had explored even more.

Around this time, an Australian NGO which was conducting a project in Jaffna had commissioned Tharindu to photograph the community they were working with. The project was for empowering women and Tharindu had had the opportunity to capture not just rural life in Sri Lanka but specifically the crucial role that women played.

“When we look at photography of rural Sri Lanka, we tend to romanticize the setting but the reality is very different to what meets the eye. Women take the brunt of this harsh life. In addition to being care givers, women usually are the bread winners as well. My personal view is that it is usually very easy for the men to leave behind adversity whereas women somehow fight on for the sake of the family. Their lives are complex and difficult.”

It is with a certain heaviness and melancholy in his voice that Tharindu speaks about a woman who was selling peanuts on a desolate road to Angamedilla which was by a forest reserve. “She was selling peanuts for Rs.100 a bag on a road where hardly anyone was passing by. Her husband was ill, she was desperate.” Tharindu’s photo of the woman spoke much more than Tharindu did. I understood her predicament by looking at the photography even before I heard the story from the photographer. There I feel, lies the power of his art.

Tharindu continues. “She was not the only one I met struggling to make ends meet. In Jaffna there were so many women whose husbands were incapacitated, dead, or missing. I saw strength but not the ‘on your face’ kind of strength. It was nuanced and subtle. It was beautiful, intricate and complex.” Strangely, these are the attributes which Thraindu’s photography exuberate. I recall his words.”…for whatever reason women have been gifted with this amazing ability to persevere adversity with grace and it is just that, that I try to capture with my lens.”

Tharindu believes Art could be used for the greater good and attempts to follow in the footsteps of Greats such as Nihal Fernando who was able to conserve our living heritage. “It is important that we know who we are. Some misconceive that to be nationalism, but I disagree. If we don’t know our roots, how could we be better informed to make predictions and pave the way for what we are to become? We need to acknowledge that this is an ancient country and that we cannot break ties with our past. Look at the way countries like Japan and China have preserved their heritage.”

Tharindu’s photography is about weaving narratives. He can feel this soil; hear the heartbeat of our people. He knows our Wewai, dagabai, gamai, pansalai connection. His camera clicks by heartstrings which stem from deeprootedness. There is depth, strength, substance in his art. He ends the interview saying, “My photos are for others, not for me. When I hold the camera before my eyes, I forego a precious opportunity to experience a raw, beautiful moment.”

Tharindu’s words remind me of the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the Life magazine photographer played by Sean Penn who spends months trying to photograph a snow leopard in the Himalayas. Eventually, when the moment arrives he puts away the camera and watches the leopard with his naked eyes. When questioned by his colleague he says “If I Iike a moment, I mean me… personally. I don’t like to have the distraction of a camera. I just want to stay in it. Right there…right here.’

That is what Tharindu Amunugama’s photography gifts us with; moments which make us want stay in. Right there…right here.