This is the project I’ve always wanted to shoot: Alys Tomlinson on her IPA shortlisted series

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Travelling to pilgrimage sites in Lourdes in France, Ballyvourney in Ireland and Grabarka in Poland, Alys developed an interest in the hidden markers and offerings left behind by religious visitors. ‘Ex-votos’ are the names of these signs of gratitude and devotion, which create tangible narratives between faith, person and landscape. The series encompasses formal portraiture, large format landscape photography, and small, detailed still lives of the objects and markers left behind.

Tomlinson is a London-based editorial and fine art photographer, working across a variety of mediums. Her previous works have garnered international attention, earning her the Hotshoe Award/Renaissance Photography Prize, and a place on last year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize shortlist.

Can you tell me about your IPA shortlisted series Ex-Voto?
This series explores the relationship between faith, people, and the landscape. Placed anonymously and often hidden from view, ‘Ex-Votos’ are offerings left by pilgrims as signs of gratitude and devotion. ‘Ex-Votos’ can take many forms, including prayer notes hidden in rocks, crosses etched into stone, ribbons wrapped around twigs, and discarded crutches. I shot the series across catholic pilgrimage sites in Europe. I wanted to capture the power of these deeply spiritual locations, but also the mystery and silence of religious sites that seem unchanged by time.

From the series Ex-Voto © Alys Tomlinson

How long did it take to create this body of work?
I first went to Lourdes five years ago on a kind of ‘pilgrim package tour.’ I had no idea what to expect and spent a week feeling like an outsider. My initial images were shot in colour and were quite documentary-like in style. I kept returning, but struggled to express the otherworldliness of Lourdes. Two years ago, I went back and decided to change my approach entirely, shooting in black-and-white, large-format film. This shifted my process, slowing it right down and bringing me closer to my subjects. I began to feel much more connected to the landscape and the people, and I extended the project to include Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland and Poland.

What inspired you to put the project together?
It was the Jessica Hausner film ‘Lourdes’ that inspired me to book my first trip. Having been brought up an atheist, I was intrigued to find out more about pilgrimages. To inform my creative work and get a better understanding of religious rituals and human behaviour, I began an MA in Anthropology of Travel Tourism and Pilgrimage at SOAS. Here I explored the ideas of phenomenology and how direct experience links to pilgrimage and religious devotion. I wrote my dissertation about Lourdes and it was during this research that I discovered a different direction for the project.

From the series Ex-Voto © Alys Tomlinson

How does Ex-Voto tie into, or depart from, your previous works?
This is the project I’ve always wanted to shoot! Most of my work is about people, place, and identity (for instance, I’ve previously worked on projects about alternative communities in the UK and New York’s changing neighbourhoods). My MA enriched my initial idea and opened up an empathy and engagement with the pilgrims I photographed. I began to relate to the subjects in a different way. This is also the first time I fully invested practically and emotionally in a long-term project, and I found it so fulfilling. Stylistically, it brings me back to my earliest interests in photography: the arresting but classic works of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, August Sander, or Diane Arbus.

 What is your next project?
I still have some work to do on Ex-Voto, as I plan to develop it into an exhibition and book, so I’m not thinking all that far ahead right now, but one of my favourite encounters during the project was with Vera, a nun from Belarus. She lives in a convent surrounded by wild horses and cares for women who are facing difficult personal challenges. She’s a fascinating and striking character, so a project about her life and work could be next…

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the International Photography Awards?
My kind of photography can be quite isolating, even though that isolation serves my creative and intellectual inquiry. My work begins from an instinct, a question, a puzzle, or a fascination. To have these interests recognized as resonating beyond my own curious impulses is both exciting and encouraging, while to receive recognition from judges with such distinctive reputations is a huge boost for my confidence and gives me the motivation to carry on!

Would you like to exhibit your work in a solo show at London’s TJ Boulting gallery? The deadline for applications for the 2019 edition of BJP International Photography Award is 20 December 2018 – 4pm GMT.  Apply now!

From the series Ex-Voto © Alys Tomlinson