When British photographer Stephen Champion travelled in Sri Lanka he loved to see the coconut groves, farmers and the fisher folk. This was perhaps largely because he at one time grew up in a farm himself back in his native England. The war took him to the north and places in the east, all offering him different faces of a multicultural life that exists in this war-torn island.
The years 2008 and 2009 were difficult for him because the war which was at its peak had by then greatly restricted his movements. Not to be deterred he focused his camera more on areas that were the least affected by the conflict. Most of these pictures went into an album which he titled ‘Colours Of Change’ and represented the ‘antithesis’ of his earlier work ‘Dharmadeepa’ which was a study of village life during the 80s and 90s.
The Brit had an eye to capture the artisan, especially the farmer. At first he was rather surprised when he asked them what they were doing if he happened to bump into one and the answer would be ‘wedek neha’ which in Sinhala means not doing work today. “People working in the fields didn’t believe that cultivating was their job as it was actually a way of life. People didn’t live with the idea of what they were doing. They were more used to being comfortable with what others thought they were doing,” said Stephen.
The more years he put into living in Sri Lanka, the more he fell in love with the island. By the year 2009 the guns and bombs fell silent and it signalled the end of a long drawn conflict. Like any other Sri Lankan he felt deeply for the lives that were lost. During the war he honoured the subject he was doing; photography. He was not patronized by anybody. He was just doing his work. “When you work with this attitude, the people look after you,” he said.
He captured some of the most gruesome sights in the conflict zone. There were crimes created by both parties to the war. Reflecting on what he saw he said: “There is no such thing as war crimes. War is the crime”.
Stephen is still here in Sri Lanka. He doesn’t need to be persuaded to reflect on the conflict. Like what was captured in the frame of his camera, his mind too contains vivid memories of the aftermath of war. “When I think of the war, it is now a journey of reflection. The end of the war gave us a feeling of change. It brought us a silence that many had not experienced. The army no longer saw the need to display that battle psyche. We were all human beings again,” he said.
As much as many things were going on inside his mind, being a foreigner in a nation ravaged by war Stephen was also working concurrently on the other album, Dharmadeepa. He set his sight far and wide and caught the attention of Sri Lanka as if looking at a giant squid with many tentacles. Despite the war being over, the Brit found many areas to focus his camera on. The island was still a happening place for him. He published ‘Sri Lanka War Stories’ in 2008 and ‘Dharmadeepa’ in 2009, as a mark of respect and in memory of Manik Sandrasagra, who had died a few years earlier and was his very close friend and mentor.
His immediate attention went to the war against nature that was prominent after the conflict. All the buildings which were coming up were damaging nature. He is a keen observer and realized when he set foot here that this was fertile land. “When I came here first people were not eating bad food. No agro chemicals were used, so we were pretty much organic. The water available was sufficient when at that time the population was about 13 million. I believe the island’s farmers were not quite aware of how rich they were,” he reflected.
Paddy fields, lakes, sand dunes, youth bathing in ponds and sometimes a village wedding drove Stephen to click his camera with the view of taking pictures which were spiced with the best flavours of the island life. For the record, the photographs taken post war will be going into an album titled ‘Colours of Change’. This book will hopefully be printed this year.
He had captured in reel a woman bathing in a lake. When asked whether it was appropriate to approach his subject in the photo because it might not go well with Sri Lankan customs for a man to go near anyone from the opposite sex especially at a bathing place, he had this to say: “If you observe closely, people in the bygone era allowed boys and girls to grow together and sometimes didn’t bother to dress them, especially at public bathing places. People were very confident and modest when bathing publicly. These ‘restricted’ ideas came as the Sri Lankan folk embraced modern culture and changed into an urban society, so I don’t see anything untoward in observing this”.
He gives attention to space, construction, shadow and light when taking photographs. He doesn’t crop his photographs. “The still image is beautiful,” said Stephen when comparing the photograph that freezes the action when compared to the motion picture.
At present guests are entertained at his home in Kandy where they are given a guided tour around the many rooms which showcase his photographs. These guests get to drink tea and listen to the veteran photographer talk about his photographs and tell them stories about Sri Lanka.
At the time of talking to Stephen, he was very excited about an event that is scheduled to take place in January 2018. He has been invited to contribute to the ‘International Photo Festival’ which will be held in Colombo.
As he walked around his home and showed this writer his photographs, he paused for a while near a series which contained photographs of a mother and her children, a lady in maturity, a pilgrimage and finally a funeral pyre. “This is the cycle of life,” he explained.
Stephen was young and bubbling with energy when he came to Sri Lanka 30 years ago. Now he has slowed down. “It’s time to reflect, edit my books and teach,” he concluded.