15 October 2018, The Tablet

Intrigued by Catholic imagery a photographer documents pilgrimage sites in France, Ireland and Poland

by Alys Tomlinson
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Intrigued by Catholic imagery a photographer documents pilgrimage sites in France, Ireland and Poland

An ex-voto found in Lourdes, France
Photo: Photo: Alys Tomlinson

I’m a professional photographer based in London and I’ve been working on my photographic project ‘Ex-Voto’ for five years. Inspired by the Jessica Hausner film ‘Lourdes’ and intrigued by Catholic imagery and iconography, the project has taken me to Christian pilgrimage sites in France, Ireland and Poland.

I grew up in an atheist family. My experience of religion extended to being dragged around old churches as a child on holidays and a couple of weeks at a Sunday School in Brighton, solely because they offered a trip to Alton Towers! I was brought up in a secular world and my friends and family were surprised when I began a photographic project about Lourdes, the famous pilgrimage site in the south of France.

I wanted to understand and experience what drew people to this site of great spiritual contemplation. I booked myself on a kind of ‘pilgrim package tour’ and was initially overwhelmed by the busy streets and endless souvenir shops. I didn’t know where to start and I spent a week feeling like an outsider. After a short time, I began to see another side to the city. Exploring Lourdes on foot, I found moments of quiet and tranquillity. I was also struck by the wonderful compassion that I saw on display. My initial images were shot in colour and more documentary in style, but I felt like I’d seen this kind of work before. I kept returning, but struggled to express the otherworldliness of Lourdes.

Landscape near St. Gobnait's pilgrimage site, Ballyvourney, Ireland ©Alys Tomlinson 

Something kept drawing me back and in order 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.

In 2016, I went back and decided to change my approach entirely, shooting in black-and-white, large-format film with a heavy, Victorian-style plate camera. This shifted my process, slowing it down and bringing me closer to my subjects. I began to focus on the quieter moments, isolating my subjects so that the portraits became a very direct exchange between photographer and sitter. I was careful about where I would take the portraits, placing pilgrims in the calmer parts of Lourdes, often by the river and always surrounded by the natural environment. I wanted the portraits to be strong yet sensitive and for the landscapes to contain a stillness and mysticism that makes the viewer want to know more. I then expanded the project to include a small Catholic pilgrimage site called St. Gobnait in Ballyvourney (Ireland), and the Orthodox Christian site of Holy Mount Grabarka (Poland).

Sr. Agnes at Mount Grabarka, Poland

As this new direction for the project took shape, I began to make stronger connections between faith, the people who visited pilgrimage sites, and the wider landscape. Placed anonymously and often hidden from view, ex-voto are offerings left by pilgrims as signs of gratitude and devotion. Ex-voto can take many forms and I found prayer notes hidden in rocks, crosses etched into stone, ribbons wrapped around twigs, and discarded crutches. The photographs in my forthcoming book encompass formal portraiture, large format landscape, and small, detailed still-life images of these objects and markers left behind.

There was something in the pilgrims’ simple faith that I found very moving, 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. The five years I’ve spent on this project have been a personal journey of discovery. Although I haven’t been ‘converted’ by my experience, I have a huge amount of respect for those with such strong religious devotion. The project has led to unexpected friendships, from drinking whisky with 80-year-old Joe in rural Ireland, to spending a fascinating week at a convent with Sr. Vera in Belarus. But that’s another story all together…

Alys was recently named Sony World Photographer of the Year 2018; An exhibition of her work at Chichester Cathedral will open on 1 March 2019

The book ‘Ex-Voto’ will be published by GOST Books in 2019, with accompanying essays by The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan and Professor John Eade, University of Roehampton and Editor of ‘Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage.’

Check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

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