SOAS grad named Sony ‘Photographer of the Year’

Photographer, Photography, Alys Tomlinson

Alys Tomlinson graduated in July 2016 with an MA in Anthropology, Travel and Tourism from our very own SOAS. She is now an editorial, design and fine art photographer based in London.

Congratulations on your Sony Photographer of the Year award! You won for your series ‘Ex Voto’ – what can you tell us about it?

Thank you! The 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. These can take many forms including prayer notes hidden in rocks, crosses etched into stone, ribbons wrapped around twigs, and discarded crutches. Taken at the Catholic pilgrimage sites of Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland), the project encompasses formal portraiture, large format landscape, and detailed still-lifes of the objects and markers left behind. 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.

Photographer, photography
Part of Alys’ winning series ‘Ex Voto’

How long did it take to create this series?

I first went to Lourdes around 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 more documentary 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 with the landscape and the people and then extended the project to include Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland and Poland.

Photographer Alys Tomlinson
SOAS MA grad Alys receiving the Sony ‘Photographer of the Year’ award

You studied for an MA in Anthropology at SOAS – what influence did your studies, your teachers – fellow students – have on your photography?  

I began an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage at SOAS in order to inform my creative work and get a better understanding of religious rituals and human behaviour. 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. As a result of my MA, I now approach my work in a more measured manner and my studies have given my projects more depth. I have also given papers at the Photography in Academic Research conference at UCL and the Anthropology and Photography conference at The British Museum. My tutors at SOAS were very encouraging, pushing me to really challenge myself. I also found the whole SOAS environment very inspiring, filled with lively debate and discussion. Studying at SOAS has made me look beyond the photographic industry, enriched my work and opened new doors.

Where can SOASians follow your work? 

The Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition is on at Somerset House until 6 May.


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