An Interview with Alys Tomlinson

7 November 2022

Alys Tomlinson is a London-based photographer. She joins us today to discuss long-term projects, research, and storytelling in her photography. Her most recent project Gli Isolani documents the traditional costumes and masks worn during festivals and celebrations on the islands of the Venetian lagoon, Sicily. and Sardinia. Photographs from Gli Isolani have been published by GOST and shown at HackelBury Fine Art Gallery in London from 7 September until 29 October 2022. To learn more about Alys Tomlinson and her work, visit her website.

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Jeremy: How did you first discover photography and what made you realize that you wanted to turn it into a career?

Alys: I studied English originally. I didn’t study photography at the beginning, I suppose. But my dad gave me a Pentax 35mm film camera when I was a teenager. I grew up in Brighton, which is the seaside resort in the UK, and I really enjoyed roaming around Brighton — the streets, the beach, and doing street photography, I suppose.

I’ve always been very interested in visual language and communication. I’ve always taken a strong interest in film and cinematography. But I never really considered it as a as a career until I was a bit older. When I was at university studying English, I took a part time photography course at the local college. I also remember seeing a Diane Arbus show at the Victoria and Albert Museum when I was a teenager, which really had a big impact on me in terms of the the power of her work and how troubled she was as a person.

You mentioned your English degree, and you also have an advanced degree in Anthropology of travel, tourism, and pilgrimage. As it is an academic field, the photography community might find it unusual for one of its own to hold a degree like this. Your personal projects and your long term projects are influenced by research and these deeper questions. So, how has your background in subjects like English and anthropology impacted your approach to personal projects and your work?

When I start a long term project — and I’m talking about my personal research-led projects as opposed to the commercial work I do — it always begins with with research. So, I’m looking at films, I’m looking at literature, I’m looking at poetry, I’m looking at historical documents to really try to enrich my way of thinking.

And I thought about I wanted to go back to college because I was getting a bit sick of the commercial photography world. This was before I worked on Ex Voto (GOST 2019), which was a big kind of turning point in my photographic career. And I decided I didn’t want to do an MA in photography because I felt like I wanted to immerse myself more in the academic world. My family are all very academic, so I do come from that background — although I’ve never considered myself as academic as them. But I wanted to be back in the library, I wanted to be in seminars, I wanted to be in lectures, I wanted to be writing and really thinking on a much deeper level about the work I was making. So I found this MA in Anthropology of travel, tourism and pilgrimage,

I suppose in lots of ways photographers like to think of themselves as explorers or anthropologists. I am a little troubled by by this term, especially with the colonialist history of anthropology and of image making. So, I felt I wanted to delve more formally into what it meant to be an anthropologist, and I think it made me more aware of topics like representation when I was making my work and doing what seemed like an ethnographic practice. Being immersed in an academic world allowed me to think about image making in a different way.

How do you balance this imperial heritage of photography with what you’re doing? Some of your portraiture seems to be a bit more nuanced, more gentle. You seem to approach yours subjects in a more humane way. They’re not just like subjects that we’re supposed to gaze at, although there is tacit invitation to do so.

Yes, I think so. Although, I wouldn’t suggest all my portraits are collaborative. But there is a collaborative element there certainly because of the camera I use, which is the very big, old-fashioned large format camera. It involves very careful and precise setup. It involves me explaining very carefully to the person I’m photographing exactly what I’m doing, always taking them through the steps. So, immediately, there’s an engagement there that isn’t just about me taking a picture of them — it becomes more than that.

I work in a very slow, considered, and still way — in a quiet and gentle way. It has always been very, very important to me, particularly as I’ve recently documented communities that are outside of my everyday life and my everyday sphere that could quite easily be labeled the “other.” I mean, they’re mostly white Europeans, but they’re also from religious communities or involved in rituals and festivities that are not part of my background. So, I’m very aware of kind of representation.

When I’m making a portrait, even when I’m doing my research and I have in my head and idea of what I might create, I’m thinking very carefully about building trust. Respect is very important to me. And so I hope there’s like a level of dignity in the way that they’re represented in the photographs. It’s all very much tied together.

Whether I’m photographing a 15 year old kid in my local neighborhood or the head of the Orthodox Church — it doesn’t matter who they are —, I’m aware that I have been given a privilege to represent them, and with that privilege comes a responsibility.

Image from Alys Tomlinson’s “Ex-Voto” (GOST 2019)Image from Alys Tomlinson’s “Ex-Voto” (GOST 2019)

It seems like there’s a ritualistic act of making photographs. But, how important would you say that long term projects are for photographers?

Well, it is the most important part of my practice. On a practical level, it brings me very little money. I sell prints. I have gallery representation. I might sometimes make a little bit of money from the books — I’ve published a very small amount. But it’s certainly not done for those purposes, in order to make money.

But it is the most important work I make in terms of the kind of emotion, energy, and time I put into it. I take very seriously how I’m documenting these people in places.

It is difficult because the commercial worlds and the personal worlds — in terms of work — are very, very separate. And that’s something I have to keep quite separate in my head. But also on a practical level, when I’m working commercially, I could often take up to 1,000 images a day on a digital camera. But when I’m working with my large format camera, some days I might not take anything. I might just be sitting observing and taking notes. Other days, I might take one or two frames. With big plate cameras, you only take one shot at a time. So, it’s almost two ends of the photographic spectrum.

But my personal work is the kind of work I find enriching. In it, I’m able to explore ideas on a much deeper level than I ever could with my commercial work. So, although, I need the commercial work on a practical level, I find definitely my personal work is more fulfilling.

In terms of commissions and the commercial world — like ad agency buyers and design agencies and picture editors — they like seeing personal work very much. And often you will get commissions on the back of that. So, they feed into each other. But for me, I would love in the future to only be able to be able to survive through my personal work alone. That’s the work that drives me really.

So, what about storytelling? What is your what is your approach to photographic storytelling for personal projects?

I don’t really have a formula. I never really know how a project is going to develop in terms of storytelling. I have an initial idea, but then it’s very important to keep an open mind and almost allow the things that you discover to lead the way.

With Ex-Voto, I very nearly gave up on it all together. When I first started the project, which was my big project about European, Christian pilgrimage, it took a long period of time and research. It took actually three or four years of the images not working — shooting medium format, shooting color. It felt like a travelogue or a nice editorial. So, the images for me weren’t really anything special. But once I developed this style with the black and white film and the large-format camera, and started really trying to reflect how I was in that location — in those in those kind of sacred sites of pilgrimage —that’s when it came together for me.

I also think the anthropological studies fed into this because, in my studies, I also did a lot of work on phenomenology. So, I started thinking about our relationship with the environment and how places shape paths and how almost we inhabit landscapes as they inhabit us. Once I started thinking in that way, it changed my approach and it also allowed me to have a kind of deeper understanding of what the pilgrimage experience meant to people.

At the moment, I’m working in a way where I tend to the focus is on the portraits and then I tend to work around that with some very kind of quiet and still landscapes and also perhaps some still-life. So, the portrait almost leads the storytelling. But I don’t I don’t do kind of I don’t know storyboards or I don’t have a strong narrative before I begin a project. I always learn as much as I can about the subject, but also allow for mishaps and adventures and surprises. Because you never know when you will go somewhere new. I never know what I am going to find or how people are going to respond. So, I think it’s important to be kind of open and intuitive in terms of storytelling with photography. For me, anyway, that’s the best approach.

It is very important that I educate myself and learn about what I’m going to photograph in advance. So I don’t just kind of roll up somewhere without any sense of what’s going on, or any real attempt to teach myself about these other communities.

You mentioned just a few moments ago that your early photos for Ex-Voto felt to you very travelogue-y and like editorial work. Can you unpack that a little bit? What do you mean by that?

Well, at the end of my Ex-Voto project, I focused on three different pilgrimage sites. But in the beginning, I was just visiting a very large Catholic pilgrimage site called Lourdes in the south of France. It is very well known and it has become a great gathering place for for Catholics. And when I first went there as a person without any particular religion or faith, I felt kind of imposter and an outsider. And I didn’t really know at that point why I was there. So I questioned my own integrity and my reasons for being there. I didn’t have a strong vision of what I wanted to photograph or how I wanted to photograph.

So, in the first really three or four years, I think I took some nice images, but they were much more kind of tentative. I wasn’t confident about my approach. And they felt to me like they could be in a nice travel magazine. And people would have thought Lourdes looked like an attractive place to visit, an interesting place to visit. But it didn’t really get beyond a more superficial level at that point.

Although the images looked like they were from a travel magazine — it wasn’t a commission; it was me funding a personal project —, it took me many trips and actually several years to get my thoughts together and understand my motives. That’s what took me the longest time to understand.

What helped was all the studying I’d done at that point. I also wrote my dissertation for my MA, my thesis, about Lourdes. By then, I knew Lourdes on a very different level from when I first turned up with a camera and a load of film.

I knew that there was something there and there was a story to tell, but in the beginning I didn’t really know exactly what that was going to be.

Image from Alys Tomlinson’s “Gli Isolani” (GOST 2022)Image from Alys Tomlinson’s “Gli Isolani” (GOST 2022)

What about capturing a sense of place and projects and photography?

For a lot of my portraits, place is very important. But it does serve as a kind of frame or a backdrop. In many of my portraits, the emphasis is very much on that person and on the gaze and the essence of that person. But I’m also very careful in terms of how I frame the portraits so that they’re somehow related to to the landscape and the environment as well.

With Ex-Voto, for instance, Lourdes is an extremely busy place. I could have done the portraits in the commercial section with the shops and crowds. But I was more interested in these much quieter moments that I observed, where people would be sitting alone for hours and they would be thinking and they would be praying. They were often by a river or a forest. So, that’s when I started think about these places and photographing people who were already in the landscape anyway. It wasn’t like I was taking and putting them somewhere different, but choosing to photograph them in these much quieter and still spaces that was more of a kind of meditative take on their faith. You can’t really separate a person from place.

And now my latest project, Gli Isolani, which means “The Islanders,” is all set in or photographed on Italian islands — mostly Sicily and Sardinia.

A lot of the portraits are about man in the land and the seasons. And a lot of them have connections with fables and folklore and even the pagan times. You can’t disconnect someone from their environment. A lot of these costumes and masks that they wear as part of the celebrations and festivities on these islands are very much related to to the land and the environment, and the pride they take in the land.

You mentioned the human focus, or the human centeredness of your your images — these quiet, meditative moments that you’re seeking. And I am wondering if this is partly why you are drawn to the larger format… because of the slower process and the more deliberate act of of making a photo?

Definitely. For me, it becomes — like you said before — a ritual in itself. In some ways, it’s very simple, but in other ways it can go wrong very easily. You have to be very focused on what you’re doing. And there is definitely a rhythm to the way you use that camera. And there’s a rhythm to the way I work.

I’m not saying I enter into this deeply meditative mindset. But certainly there is a connection when I’m working and when I’m photographing that is established.

There is a depth and a tonality that you get with film, and particularly with large format. With large format, you’re getting a very big negative and you’re getting very rich detail. There’s a quality there that I’ve not been able to match on digital. But there is more than that. In fact, much more than that. It is a different way of working. It is a different way of thinking. It is a different way of communicating with your subjects that very much suits the quiet nature of the themes that I’m exploring through my image making.

You’d mentioned Diane Arbus earlier, but I was wondering if there are any other photographers that influence or inform your own work?

Andrea Monica. She’s an American photographer working mostly in black and white, large format. I am a big fan of her work. I only discovered her work quite recently.

If we’re going back further, then August Sander is a big influence. Darla Lichtenberg did this great book Imperial Courts, which is in black and white, large format. Vanessa Winship and Judith Joy Ross. My favorite photographers do fine art documentary, if you had to put a label on it. But they all photograph very movingly, the human condition. Most of their work is portraiture, and the ones I mentioned do all their work on a large format camera and mostly in black and white the same way I do.

I suppose a lot of my influences are more traditional in terms of the work process. I think I’m a kind of traditionalist at heart when it comes to photography, but I also, find inspiration from a wide a wide range of photographers.