1:1 with Luka Alagiyawanna

1. What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?


My earliest memories connected to photography are actually of me already taking photos. Between the age of 8 and 14, I was documenting my family travels in Europe and Sri Lanka as well as some daily life situations. I used an analogue 35mm compact camera and the contemplation while choosing the frame and right moment were an essential part for me (especially as you had only 36 images on one film roll). Back then I mainly photographed nature, animals, and family members in color.


So, basically the act of taking photos and the interaction with my surroundings while doing it was what attracted me most. Last but not least, the wait for developed negatives and the joy in receiving small 10x15cm prints was a big part of it.


2. Tell us about your experience in the B.A. for photography program at the Berliner Technische Kunsthochschule. How did this education informed your practice?


For me it was a great experience to understand photography in a broader art and design context. The theoretical university approach, which does not focus on technical perfection, influenced me widely. Of course, it is important to know how to take a technically perfectly executed photograph, but in the end there is much more than that.


We always discussed an image or a series of images from the point of view of concept, through execution as well as the presentation; so it never ended with a single image that was expected to be printed and hung onto the wall.


I have enjoyed it very much studying and learning under a vast variety of photographers – their visual styles, character, and interests. This has given me a much broader view on photography, the life as a photographer, and what all is possible.


Through my studies, I also have learned a lot about design; not only directly related to photography – something that I was not interested in at the time – but which has been very useful in the past few years in my creative practice and freelance life.


3. Do you think it is important to receive formal training in photography?


I think there are so many different ways to learn about photography and, as there are various types of people, the different paths make sense for different styles of learning. I think it is important to learn through personal experience and also be guided through someone’s feedback. That need not be a university professor but rather not be only commercial clients. I believe every photographer needs to have a period, or rather different periods, where they can explore and implement their creative process without it having a purely technical or commercial focus which I have seen happening with many self-taught photographers. Of course, there are exceptions and those are the most amazing ones!


4. Who or what has inspired you to pursue photography and/or continues to do so?


The projects I have been working on have usually supported the exploration of my environment and made it possible to experience things I would have otherwise not had the opportunity to, especially the different kinds of people I have met. This is the biggest aspect that has motivated me to pursue photography. Another point is that I am much more interested in expressing myself with images than in words. When I was younger, I was painting a lot and when I got more into photography, it just felt like it was the right way, my way. I still paint sometimes, but rather just for myself. I love sharing my view on certain things and photography is a great tool for me.


Photographers who veer from the traditional way of working have motivated me to explore my own, whether it is in their general approach or the interaction with people involved in a project.


I have had a mentor who works in different ways with photography (freelance, personal projects & books, as an image editor and a lecturer), which has influenced me a lot in seeing what is possible in my own path as well.


5. Is there a book, exhibition or body of work that has really impressed you and maybe influenced your work / life?


Of course, there is a long list, but to just name a few – Dayanita Singh’s Museum Of Chance has definitely been one. And when I just started studying, I was very intrigued by JR’s Inside Out and his use of the public space as well as social activism and the involvement of people.


6. What draws / drew you to the subject matter you are pursuing in your current work?


The Ocean Cyanotypes I did for Colomboscope 2019 are based on my interest in the environment and concern about increasing pollution. Thus, being able to raise awareness for something without it being very loud or in a direct but rather subtle way, and something you actually have to spend some time with, in order to draw something from it, resonates with me.


My other projects are usually also very closely connected to my personal life and experience and come from personal emotion and viewpoint.


7. Please describe the evolution of your work, from the earliest series in Germany to your latest works in Sri Lanka. How does geography inform your work?


Moving between Germany and Sri Lanka within the past ten years has made me shift my perspective a lot, which made me try to find ways to incorporate different views into my work (Refer to my project From This Point Forward).


Different cultures, societies, and even the climate surrounding me definitely influence my practice. Being in Sri Lanka helps (and sometimes forces) me to accept how uncontrollable and serendipitous life is, which I began integrating into my work, taking a more participatory approach (with From This Point Forward), as well as returning to analogue processes more and more: the uniqueness and imperfections of using the cyanotype process and developing black and white negatives in the hot tropical climate.


8. Cyanotype is among the earliest photographic techniques used to make prints using light and without the intermediary use of a camera. From Ana Atkins to some more contemporary artists like Meghann Riepenhoff, the Prussian blue of the cyanotype has drawn the attention of artists as well as viewers. What drew you to making your prints as cyanotypes instead of photographing using a camera?


I always wanted to use the analogue cyanotype process with its strong and intense blue tone, and I had it in the back of my mind for quite some time and ‘waited’ for the right project to use it. The blue of the cyanotype reminded me of the deep ocean, and this is how I brought my subject matter of ocean pollution and this process together. It is of great significance for me to connect the concept, visual style, the technique and presentation with one another.


One important aspect for me is to work with my hands, which I like to increase on a daily basis and not only sit in front of a screen. Cyanotypes involve working with your hands much more than digital photography, for example. As the subject matter also is something very physical that we have created in the world, this brought the project full circle.


9. By placing the natural and the artificial objects on the sensitized paper and creating a negative image on the final print where the original forms are indistinguishable, are you somewhat questioning the origin of the synthesis of what is natural and what is man made?


The pollution in our environment becomes kind of inseparable from the environment, or at least it takes a greater effort and energy to separate it again. When we look at Ocean Cyanotypes, it repeats that aspect. Often, we see ‘us’ and ‘nature’ as separate entities but with the increasing pollution and climate change, we see the impact and how entangled everything is. Each single piece of plastic that ends up in the ocean becomes part of an ecosystem. In my cyanotypes too, we cannot distinguish the difference between natural matter and man made any more; nature does not make a difference and tries integrating it into the ecosystems.


10. How different was the experience of making your images on a canvas, using found objects, and arranging them instead of composing an image through the frame of a camera?


I like changing things around a little rather than always sticking to the same technique. I have missed image development in the darkroom in the past years and the absence of a camera made me focus on the printmaking aspect, which sometimes is put aside in these digital times.


I was intrigued by the limitations of the two-dimensional paper surface. Shapes, texture and composition became the focus. Each image became a unique, one-of-a-kind print with no editing. Either it worked in the selection or it was out. I enjoyed that very much as that slowed down the process a lot.


It was great to use less equipment as I actually made most of the images at the beach itself, and of course with washing the prints in a normal sink with drainage. It became a big part of the process and raised the curiosity of the people passing by. I encountered many people who started conversations which then led to us talking about the subject matter itself – pollution. I guess if I had worked with a camera, this would have been very different.


11. Do your projects typically run in parallel, or do you focus on one project at a time?


I usually work on different projects at the same time, sometimes over months or even years, with breaks in between and also on very specific focused projects, concentrating on one body of work. This is often connected to the places I am in as well as logistics, finances and timing (finishing something for an exhibition etc.).

My interests shift sometimes as well and with some projects it is actually not possible for me to photograph seven days in a row (e.g. a place where I am trying to not be seen or recognized) which stretches the time period greatly.


12. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well? Do you share it with colleagues or others? Your own sense of it?


Discussing photographic work with colleagues is always great. I especially like talking about my work while I am still in the process and not only when it is finished, which helps me reflect on my own process and see others’ viewpoints.


Work does feel successful when someone reaches out to me after having seen it and it goes further than “Nice work,” “Well done,” and if I can impact people with my work in some way.


13. Do you ever find yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ Is there something that is particularly helpful to you in overcoming this?


Not using the camera for some time and doing other creative things like drawing, for example, and allowing myself to use my phone camera or one of my very old cameras in those periods to become more playful again, is what I do when it is not flowing as freely anymore.


14. How much effort do you put into getting your work shown? Is this important to you? Does showing your work feed your creative process, or does it distract you from it?


I think showing your work is always important. I am sure I do way too little to be “out there,” but sometimes I’d rather spend my time in different ways than the outside presentation and marketing of my own work.


It is great to get feedback and have conversations about your work, but I feel that happens more in personal, private conversations and specific feedback rounds rather than through exhibitions for example. What is amazing about exhibitions and showing your work online as well is that it is shown to a wider audience.


It is also amazing how the internet and social media helps us connect with people that are searching for something, for example film development is almost impossible in Sri Lanka and connecting with others helps share the few resources we do have.


15. Do you feel that there are adequate opportunities and avenues to share show your work in Sri Lanka, or do you always look for such opportunities abroad?


Opportunities to exhibit ones’ work in Sri Lanka are increasing, but we are definitely in need for more avenues to share and also discuss photographic work. Abroad it is more common for independent photographers to get together and have group exhibitions or of someone offering you / you searching for exhibition space than in Sri Lanka. In Colombo, spaces are very limited.


Only in the past years people have started using more unconventional spaces to have photography exhibitions outside a conventional gallery. This is very important as it pushes the development of photography in Sri Lanka with less of a commercial aspect in focus.


16. We know that fine art or documentary photography is not always enough to make a living. Some do commercial work, others teach. Are there other photography related areas that you work with in order to supplement your living? some that you would recommend aspiring photographers might consider?


I have been teaching photography at the Academy of Design in Colombo for the past two years, however this is out of the interest in teaching and exchange of viewpoints rather than it being a source of income. I do commercial work, which is usually in the sustainable and more ethical / ecological sector – so I do enjoy this and rather see meaning in supporting the marketing of consciously produced products. Also, I do not see it as something that I do only to supplement my income.


I recommend everyone try out all kinds of work related to photography to see what works best for them. I prefer to focus on (commercial) clients that share my world views than allowing money to be my only motivation for any kind of work. I am grateful that I have found a way to work like this, without having to compromise too much on my own beliefs.


As I know many photographers who earn their living fully with photography (e.g. doing commercial work that pays well) and also photographers who do not like to compromise their photographic work and supplement their income with other side work, I see there are many possibilities and one can find their own individual way.


17. Digital technology has changed photography drastically over the last few years. Did you initially embrace the changes or resist them? Do you believe the changes have been good for the medium or not?


The big change in the medium was already happening when I got into photography seriously, but I was lucky enough (after my childhood and teenage experience) to learn and explore old analog techniques further and see the value in it. Until recently, the digital image was still so young that the image quality was much lower than even a 35mm scanned negative. This is now changing, which is great, but I do still see how useful analog photography is, especially for young photographers starting out. It makes you contemplate much more as it is more expensive as well as the effort that goes into producing one image – a 120 roll only has 12 to 15 images! Of course, anyone can take a great picture out of 200, but can you do it with only two shots? Being able to work well under limited conditions and taking your time and deciding in that moment is very essential for me.


The learning process through the digital medium can be accelerated as the development process to see an image is more effortless than it used to be. So, I guess both have their pros and cons. I love switching between both, according to the project and my intentions at that moment. Digital photography has made a lot of things easier and more affordable, which is good; I believe we just need to make sure we use it consciously and not get lazy.


Of course, my heart beats for film photography and analogue processes. I also just love the surprises that you sometimes encounter with it. I see a lot of beauty in uncontrolled imperfections. The quality of a medium format film and 4×5 is still simply incredible and beautiful. Very high-resolution digital images do show “everything” however, without the classic grain beauty.


18. Do you think there is a universal language that photography uses? Do you think that South Asian photographers are finding that they are judged by western criteria and standards?


First of all, the medium was developed in the west, so most photography related things are influenced by this fact. It is as if South Asian photography needs to fight for its own development. We have more and more interesting photo festivals in the region that do have international relevance and young photographers should not only look at western criteria for their work. I think the main thing is to develop a unique approach instead of following others’ footsteps – this does increase confidence in young photographers in presenting their work internationally.


Of course, different cultures have different aesthetics. And the images that surround us influence our viewpoints. As photography can use larger references and representation in images, it helps if the viewer has knowledge about the relevant culture. Of course, there is a universal language in photography and some things can be understood from whatever cultural background a person has, but I doubt that is including everything we can read in a picture or what a photographer aims to communicate.


19. With your years of experience (perhaps not so many), of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


Pursue what you are interested in and do not worry about specializing in one technique, subject matter or field only. Either it comes naturally or it does not, which I do not see as a problem or disadvantage anymore as long as you have developed your own style and way of working. Your path sometimes only makes sense when you look back.


20. How has it been for you living through this lockdown period, in terms of your practice and/or producing work?


I was lucky enough to take part in Stay at home photography which paired different photographers globally and initiated photographic conversations since March 2020.


The strict 11-week lockdown in Colombo was intense, and for me – in a shared apartment in the city – very interesting and challenging to find something visually interesting daily, after seeing the same in such a confined space every day.


21. How would an interested collector go about buying your work?


It depends how they come across my work, I guess. As I am not with any gallery or representation at the moment, a collector can always reach out directly (luka.alagiyawanna@gmail.com). Often people would be introduced to my work through exhibitions or festivals and then it can go through the organizers as well as direct contact.


22. If you didn’t do photography, what other career might you have pursued?


Besides photography I set up a brand a few years ago called Ninalu, that focuses on recycled sterling silver jewelry and ceramics. I am sure I would not have come that far with Ninalu if I were not a photographer with a design background.


Imagining another career, what comes to my mind is architecture that I would be interested in pursuing with sustainability and tropical modernism in focus. I also remember that, right after school, I was considering becoming a teacher for a short time. I guess with my work now I combine various fields of interests that I have developed over the years and, without it being a serious goal, I became a lecturer as well.



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Copyright © Luka Alagiyawanna

Date Published

20 November