1:1 with Natalie Soysa

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


My father had a 1984 hardcover edition of Best of LIFE sitting at home for as long as I can remember. As a child more interested in pictures than words, I went from cover to cover of this mammoth publication many times. I think this informed my composition and storytelling long before I knew I would pick up a camera.


There was no real idea or conception of becoming a photographer until I was almost 30. But there seemed to be some inherent ability to compose without any formal training. To this day, I attribute this to my dad’s book.


2. Did you study photography formally in a college or university? If not, how did you inform yourself about the medium – the techniques, the language and the aesthetics of it?


For someone doing this for 11+ years now, I have had almost no formal training. Encouraging your child to become an artist was not a thing when I was growing up. So, I started studying marketing and worked in the marketing / communications industry for 12 years before I upped and quit. Career success just didn’t mean much to me and I was not happy being boxed in a cubicle. I decided to give myself a 30th birthday present of ‘retiring’ early and affording myself the space to breathe and become.


Throughout my life my real escape had been music and more specifically rock and heavy metal. Sri Lanka has a rich underground music scene that’s over 20 years old now and I’ve been a regular at gigs throughout that time. I decided to buy myself a camera and start documenting the music and the counterculture that had formed around it. This was of course a hobbyist project, a way to while away the time until I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had no clue what I was doing, so I turned to a more rudimentary path of turning knobs, pushing buttons, and figuring my way around the camera. It took far longer to learn this way, but the process became an addictive one. I couldn’t seem to put my camera down, as if we belonged together.


I have since attended several workshops (Shirana Shahbazi), masterclasses (John Stanmeyer / Anush Babajanyan) and portfolio reviews (Shahidul Alam), but of course these were only possible once I knew I was good enough to pitch my work for these sessions.


I have also gone on to deliver talks and training programs on lens-based practices to others, including a TEDx talk, a guest talk at the Photographic Society of Sri Lanka, and teaching a residential masterclass to 30 participants on visual journalism in February 2020 for the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) where I also work as editor.


3. If you were to design a photo program for young Sri Lankan photographers, what would it look like?


Definitely workshops and mentorship programs. Both also need to fulfill a sense of purpose and not entirely be about lecturing on the technicalities of photography. My last workshop for SLPI involved potential participants pitching a story / project they want to work on and honing that project to completion.


For a 3 to 5-day workshop the projects need to be discussed, captured, edited, and completed within that span, so narratives selected here will be those that fit into a time frame.


A mentorship program, on the other hand, could focus on a longer-term project, similar to my own I, Mutant story documenting a single woman’s journey through battling breast cancer and social attitudes to women’s bodies in Sri Lanka.


While some parts of this may be general to all, there needs to be sufficient time for individual discussion as well as group time within both a mentorship or workshop program. The one-on-one sessions are particularly important when trying to help hone a specific photographer’s talent and approach. My approach of self-questioning is passed on to the photographer, where we will collectively ask difficult questions and attempt to answer them with the work.


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


Rage. It’s my great motivator and where most of my inspiration comes from. My first steps as a photographer were about documenting heavy metal in Sri Lanka because it was a subversive culture, angrily moving away from the contemporary pop-culture norm we are all indoctrinated with at an early age. I related to this rage and it drove me forward to start exploring what really made me angry, like Sri Lanka’s endless battle with gender, race, and identity at large; our attitudes towards women’s bodies, SRH rights, abortion, rape, homophobia, transphobia, and that which is made unnecessarily private.


As a result, my photographic practice has involved forced confrontations with these rarely documented and represented issues and does so by exploring the human form, while giving my subjects agency as opposed to documenting bodies through a voyeuristic male gaze. It results in putting these unnecessarily private phenomena in a public space.


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


Definitely The Best of LIFE. It is also where I discovered one of my favorite documentary and music photographers, Jim Marshall. But the book is also a reminder of how much a boys’ club photography was and, to an extent, still is today.


6. After being in advertising for 11 years, you became a photographer out of frustration, as you wanted to use your voice for something other than “selling toothpaste.” How and why did photography become your tool to address the issues and concerns you now address in your work?


Being good as a glorified soap salesman (which is essentially what advertising has become today) paid well but didn’t quite reap a sense of joy or satisfaction. Photography happened to me purely by accident, but the more I document with my camera, the more I realize that this is what I was meant to do all along. I only started taking photographs as a hobby, attempting to document the island’s rich underground music counterculture. But as someone who couldn’t seem to put their camera down, I found myself in situations where I could witness and document injustices and their resultant long-term impacts, especially in relation to gender and identity in the country. The more this happened, the more purpose I found in my practice.


7. What challenges did you face as a photographer in Sri Lanka, especially given the last couple of years?


The landscape for journalism and art that critiques national politics in Sri Lanka isn’t a great space – not because we’re lacking in great storytellers and artists, but because we have fostered a culture of silence in the country, and it results in fewer audiences for truth telling work. It is also a dangerous environment to work in as both journalist and artist – especially in the context of critiquing the government.


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


I’ve turned my camera around this time, documenting my battle with stage 4, metastatic breast cancer. While this is distinctively different to my other work, it still comes from the same place – rage against archaic social attitudes towards women’s bodies that makes the breast cancer experience largely ‘private’ in Sri Lanka.


There is no celebratory head shaving or public seeing of someone experiencing cancer. As a result, the colossal evolution that a breast cancer patient must go through from a rapidly changing physical reality to how that reality confronts public healthcare or social encounters. This reticent mindset leaves society unprotected from breast cancer and results in many diagnoses (like my own) coming at an advanced stage. It also leaves everyone diagnosed in the region grappling for answers. We are not in the habit of regular breast checks, nor are we in the habit of talking about it because we still see women’s bodies as taboo dialogs that are more suited to the pornographic than the everyday.


9. It takes great courage to document oneself while going through treatment for breast cancer, especially at the stages you are experiencing. From where does that courage come?


It’s the same sense of bravery that comes with documenting most of my other work, I just didn’t see it that way until I started documenting my journey to battle this horrendously invasive illness. This is just who I am. When a story needs to be told, I tell it. I happened to become the subject of my story this time. It has allowed me to express myself without a need to hold back.


10. Why did you decide to title this work I, Mutant.


I, Mutant is my middle finger to identity politics. I haven’t quite been able to relate to any of the labels in our contemporary lexicon that are associated with identity. Being diagnosed with breast cancer meant I had to confront my already complex identity against the backdrop of a gendered public healthcare system, archaic social norms and the loss of breasts and estrogen – which are both considered to be aspects that define the binary gender of ‘woman.’ Similar to scholar Donna Haraway’s definition of cyborg, a post-gendered creature, I now define myself as mutant. While the cancer itself is a mutation, I feel that my identity sits beyond the illness and certainly beyond the gendered norms of society that hold many of us back. Having battled these layered contexts associated with women and their bodies makes me no longer want to be associated with someone else’s stereotype. My identity is mutant and I am allowed to create my own definitions based on my life experience.


I think I have always been one but it took the cancer to help me see it. When I think about what I know of mutants, this makes sense to me. Mutants are outsiders and outcasts; vastly different from the status quo. But it is also what makes them so special.


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


It depends on the magnitude of each project, but I prefer working on one big photography project at a time. I occasionally take on small assignments in between, as long as it doesn’t take up too much of my time. In addition to the actual photography, there needs to be sufficient time to reflect and muse on the process. As an activist, however, I do work on non-photography based projects concurrently with photographic work. I co-founded BENDR, a dialog platform for all things gender and sexuality because the rich discourse taking place in academia and activist circles aren’t trickling down to the everyday. I design content and moderate conversations from a cross section of society on a weekly basis, which happens irrespective of whatever else I am working on.


When I do have free time, I shoot heavy metal gigs, because I find this to be a great release that requires less thinking. Having done this for 11+ years, I have come to know the musicians, how they move and the stories behind the music. So, the process becomes automatic, like coming home.


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?


There is a difficult duality to this process for me. While I know that my lens-based practice is my most eloquent medium, there is a part of me that is my harshest critic. I don’t want anyone to see the work until I know I’ve been able to actually say something of meaning.


I have, however, seen the benefit of another pair of eyes on the work. Everyone views an image differently and may be able to see something in an image or body of work that you have not. When to show the work and if to show it at all is still a fine balance I am navigating. It differs from project to project, from image to image.


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


When it comes to un-commissioned and personal projects, I don’t create unless I am sufficiently enraged and, in turn, inspired to do so. I don’t think up a project and start working on it. The project happens to me and then I can’t help but create it.


When it’s commissioned work, however, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. If today’s work doesn’t speak to me, I will go out and try again tomorrow. It is in the doing that I get better, so I refuse to get stuck in a rut and work through the creative frustrations with my camera.


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 do put some effort into it, but I feel that getting the work out there is important. A good enough body of work or a solid photographic project means the offers will come to you. In fact, a project from 2013 that looked at women’s representation in the media since the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka still gets exhibited today. Most of my work that has been exhibited or published has been on request from a festival curator or magazine editor and only a few have been based on submissions.


Showing the work is deeply important to me because most projects are topics that require public viewing, either in the media or by way of public exhibition. If we’re not talking about rape or abortion for instance, a body of work that forces you to see it and start thinking about it is essential. Getting the work out there doesn’t always mean being shown at an international festival – it means using all the means available to you, from pitching for grants and awards to even by way of correctly used social media.


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


While my work has been exhibited a few times in Sri Lanka, it has been far less frequent than being shown abroad. There are some platforms for exhibition, but none are consistent and there are very few open calls for photography submissions here. Galleries too tend to have a bigger focus on mixed media and painting / illustrative work, paying less attention to photographic practices. I feel that photography, as a serious artistic practice, is still undervalued here today.


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 to consider?


I decided very early in my career that I was not going to engage in commercial or wedding photography irrespective of how lucrative it was. There was something special to my connection with photography and I didn’t want to dilute it in any way. The only exception to this rule is fashion. I see fashion photography as a form of fine art and this is an area I love exploring visually. Fashion can also be a means of documentary photography; it just depends on the photographer and how far the client is willing to go. In 2016, Dolce and Gabbana hired Franco Pagetti, a war photographer for their new line and the resultant work is phenomenal to say the least.


I also love to teach my craft and help others to hone their gifts, so I occasionally earn by doing this as well. I unofficially have mentored several photographers in the past few years, and of course delivered workshops on a more official basis and this is an area I am keen to explore further.


I think, when finding a balance here, you need to discover what works for you. Some engage in serious projects on a part-time basis and spend more time on commercial photography, as it is primarily a means of an income. Others do the opposite. It’s also about knowing what you’re good at. A documentary photographer can also be a great wedding photographer; it’s just not for me.


17. 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?


Being a visual medium, the viewing of photography happens in a universal manner as it is a universal language. Photography enables more people to grasp the narratives they try to express without too much getting lost in translation. The making of an image, however, doesn’t quite follow a linear process and the practice differs from photographer to photographer.


I also think South Asian artistic practices have carved out their own space with specific regional festivals and initiatives (for example the Chobi Mela), which have enabled us to no longer need to conform to western practices. Images tell stories and they can’t be judged based on one set of cultural standards, because no two photographers will tell the same story in the same way. It is the eye of the practitioner that matters, irrespective of the rules that practice follows or breaks.


18. With your years of experience, of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


I wish I had known that I should have started out earlier than I did instead of falling into my practice by accident and realizing that it was what I had been doing all along. In that sense, I feel we need to have visible and active dialogs that help young creatives to come into their own instead of having to follow the career norm first.


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


Because I was diagnosed with cancer, my need to be in lockdown was more intense. But it also meant I had the opportunity to turn the camera around and continue to document a story that had so much to do with my work around gender and identities in South Asia. So, in that sense my practice didn’t suffer, I merely needed to learn how to document myself instead of someone else.


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


Buyers have usually contacted me directly by email (natalie.soysa@gmail.com). The way the sale happens and how much is charged for each piece or collection I sell differs, based on the buyer’s request for a RAW file or a printed file.


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


I already pursued a different career in advertising before photography became my primary practice. Today, there’s nothing else I would rather do.



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Copyright © Shiffani Reffai

Date Published

20 November