The need to change how you do photography is something that keeps evolving all the time. The role of the photographer has become so challenging that most of them don’t know what they’ll be doing with the camera in little as one year from now.
Associated Press photographer Gemunu Amarasinghe has adapted to this change quite beautifully. “We are now looking at virtual reality two-dimensional photography. No one knows what’s next. Even the television stations are worried,” said Gemunu who is on a holiday in Sri Lanka after finishing a photo shooting assignment for AP in Myanmar.
We remember Gemunu fleeing the country back in 2009 when the war was at its peak. Those were times he has never recovered from even now. One caption to a photograph he took of a hospital that was shelled during the civil war changed his life so dramatically. Suddenly his life was under threat and he had to run away to India. The good thing that came out of this experience was that it opened the doors for him to do a series of travels to other countries.
There is one characteristic that stands out in Gemunu’s approach to photography. He looks for work that makes his job challenging. He remembered his start in mainstream media in Sri Lanka. “Work was routine. I worked as a freelancer. But assignments were not very challenging. It was then that I decided to team up with British travel writer Royston Ellis and do photography for travel writing and most of the in-flight magazines. I got out of newspapers at the right time; just before the by-line created that surface for the ego to prop up and start growing,” said Gemunu who has now been assigned to cover Thailand starting this year.
India was harsh. He was stationed in New Delhi. The city was too big and too flat for him. His stomach probably churned and he was looking for a way out. That was the time he got the opportunity to land himself in beautiful Nepal. His face lit up when the topic about Nepal sprung up. We were sitting and talking in a café in Madiwela, Kotte where the light was dim. But I remember his face his eyes widening and the guy straightening up from a slouched position in his seat. When he landed in Nepal there was a huge riot in the city. There was an unofficial curfew; which the Nepalese term ‘Bada’.
“As much as it was a beautiful country it was also a happening place,” he said.
He remembered not being very true to the visa officer who wanted to know the reason behind his visit to Nepal.
“I said I was there to take pictures of the mountains and he believed me,” laughed Gemunu. He loved what he did with the camera, but his head often became heavy whenever the thought struck him that he was in self-exile. During his stay in Nepal one good thing happened to him. The snow-capped mountains he saw made him reflect on the mountains in Sri Lanka.
“The mountains in Nepal stood so majestically that I began to realize that what we have in Sri Lanka in comparison were little hills. All this deflated my ego,” reflected Gemunu.
During his career as a photographer he has practised a healthy work ethic. Even when doing his rounds in the once war-torn Sri Lanka, he worked within the frame work which defined the role of a media person who didn’t have a personal agenda.
He was once stationed in Afghanistan at the time US troops set foot there. Gemunu worked from the bureau office were the editorial was upstairs and the living quarters were situated below.
He took his share of risks needed to do a proper job. Routine work comprised following stories that had potential to develop. A vehicle was hired and he often obtained the services of a fixer; a resident who knew the area and its dangers. He did his work but he hated his stay in Afghanistan often wondering whether his loved ones would one day find his blood-stained head on a stick after being murdered by a terrorist organization.
Gemunu has had a way of playing within the rules; observing the ones outlined for a journalist not to be a hero, but play the role of watchdog to a nation. Once he was taking pictures of a protest in Tiannamen Square in China. He was pulled into a van by security officials and questioned, but he refused to budge when told to show his pictures. “I was later reminded of a journalist’s duty and they told me to use the pictures in a responsible manner. That’s how the Chinese deal with a foreign news agency. If that happened in Sri Lanka it would have been another story,” he said.
He described his stay in Myanmar as ‘mind blowing’. Gemunu’s focus was Leader of the National League of Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi; who was under house arrest at that time. He recalled how people used to gather close to Suu Kyi’s residence and have singing sessions anticipating her release. And on the day of the release there was a scramble to take pictures, but he captured his shot. Suu Kyi even granted Gemunu a one to one interview later on.
It has been a long trek for Gemunu as a photographer. He has served many close-calls and lived to tell his story. And like most other committed journalists he stays clear of using the word luck when commenting about his career. “It’s been a privilege to take photographs and make it my career,” he said.