A beautiful young boy lies stretched out on a shiny white painted bench, wrapped in a neatly tucked-in white sheet and with his hands folded prettily under his chin. The silvery blue light is at once both kind and oddly ethereal, softening the picture’s secret. Drawn in to look closer, you casually nose at the neatly-cut square label tied to the boy’s wrist. Reading what’s scribbled on it, you pull back sharply. “Wound calamity”, it reads, and with a mercurial flash you realise simply, the boy is dead.
Turning the subsequent pages, the sense of initial shock is quickly supplanted by images that tell a grander story, indicate an ancient landscape of peace, immensity and a distinct spiritual tranquillity. The vast Horton Plains effuse a tropical haze through a muted palette evocative of a balmy nightfall. Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, an imposing edifice which formerly housed both monasteries and a palace and still harbours frescoes on its walls, bespeaks heritage and national treasure. Alongside a waterfall, a woman bears water in silver urns atop her crown. A Buddhist monk gazes into his reflection in a sequestered pool and a group of women harvest paddy against a backdrop of tropical birds and palm trees. Everything appears to be as it has always been, for unknown millennia, in a land celebrated for its rich culture and abundant forests, its mixed heritage and multi-faiths.
Yet, the picture of a perfect life lived simply suddenly dissolves and a photograph of the United Nations’ headquarters is instead thrust before you. Forget the brief glimpse of a paradisiacal island promising meditation, temples and monasteries. As you pass through the UN gates, what you face is a visual catalogue of human tragedy – of massacres, drive-by shootings, refugee camps, child labour, masked soldiers, open mines, mass graves.
Much is made of the name Sri Lanka, derived from the Tamil Ilankai meaning ‘ a shining point of light’. Yet the island-nation today is neither venerated nor resplendent. It is war-torn, ravaged and brutally split between the Tamils and the Sinhalese who largely inhabit it and dominated by a savage civil war that has raged for the past 30 years.
The “wounded calamities” in Sri Lanka up to 2002 may number as many as 150,000. Post 9/11, a temporary ceasefire was established, though talks broke down a year later. Following serious and repeated infractions of the agreement, conflict resumed at the end of 2005, though the government held on to the possibility of peace against the odds, only finally withdrawing from the pact in January 2008.
The tit-for-tat violence and catalogue of daily brutality today shows no sign of abating.What does it take for a nation to pull together and decide to cherish the land and culture it shares rather than blast holes through it? Charred bodies by the side of the road still slowly burning or Buddhist monks sitting in peace, contemplating the exquisite charms of their land – which picture ought to represent a nation and be held up to the world? It seems a simple choice, which Stephen Champion, who has spent 23 years photographing Sri Lanka, presents quite ingeniously. His picture-editing dramatises an all too familiar tragedy, the gory glory of the troubled isle held up in his careful juxtapositions of beauty and tragedy, cause and effect with images laid side by side to devastating effect.
Exposing so much more than a written document detailing the struggles of a nation to deal with so much bloodshed and grief could do, Champion too suggests that a simplicity of vision is needed, rather than an examination of the intricacies of the dispute. Champion’s homage to Sri Lanka underlines a basic truth that “all must come into the mix, in order that we might co-exist in our tiny little world… in all our forms and tribes”.