Saturday, October 3, 2015

Theshan Alwis weds art and life

Stanley Kubrick was a great filmmaker. He was also a photographer, though whether “great” sums up his outlook on that art is debatable. He privileged authenticity in picture after picture, so much so that in the end he preferred capturing spontaneity in what he shot rather than allowing his subjects to “pose” and hence market appeal through his craftsmanship.

He wasn’t just a photographer, hence. He was a (virtual) naturalist. That’s why we celebrate him today, and not just as filmmaker.

The rift between spontaneity (“honesty”) and restraint (“artifice”) is probably one which every artist and not just photographers face. Theshan Alwis, an artist in his own right and more importantly one who’s infusing humanism into what he’s doing, would agree. He should know it well by now, after all.

He is the founder of “Humans of Sri Lanka”. That’s a poor approximation of what he does and embodies, but for now that’s what he’s best known as. “Humans of Sri Lanka”, those who know it well will tell you, has captured not just eye but heart too. Yes, that’s a clichéd way of putting it, but right now that is how its admirers and champions will describe it for you. It isn’t just a series of pithy portraits of Sri Lankans. It’s a portrait of an entire country.

This is Theshan’s story.

He explains how he “got here”. “I was and still am a fan of quotes,” he smiles, “Quotes about life and living, that is. So I tweeted quips about life every day. Eventually, I gained popularity, to a point where people were sharing my tweets. Right now, I have more than 250,000 followers with about 12,000 tweets. So I took the next step. I joined Facebook.”

What happened next was unfathomable. “I found myself on Facebook, a completely different universe, mind you! My original intention was to consolidate what I’d learnt and done on Twitter. Instead, after surfing sometime and over some days, I came across a page.” It was, he remembers, “eye opening”. For those of you who’ve guessed the name of the page, you guessed right: it was “Humans of New York”.

After reading the “amazing” stories compiled on that page by its founder, Brandon Stanton, Theshan had been inspired. “I don’t like to mince my words, so I’ll say it right here: he was almost a hero to me. He still is. In his photographs and their accompanying captions, of life in general around and across New York, you don’t just see portraits of people. You see life itself being projected to millions around the world.” Not surprisingly, young Theshan was moved to “do my own thing” and resolved to do so at that point.

It happened in 2013, September to be specific. Theshan started his own page, fittingly titled “Humans of Sri Lanka” to differentiate it from the more regional outlook of Stanton’s page. “Getting those crucial likes from scratch is pretty hard for this kind of venture,” he explains, “but for me, this was worsened by the fact that no one had done what I was doing here before.”

He elaborates on what he means by this. “Sri Lankans, like human beings pretty much everywhere else (and probably more than in any other part of the world), love stories. They love listening to stories and narrating them. As such what I was doing was injecting that love for narratives into my page. The problem was in getting people to see it not as a revolutionary but an evolutionary concept, since all I was doing was putting our collective love for narrating into social media.”

Now “likes” on Facebook are a dime a dozen (as they say), but Theshan is convinced that people reacted from their heart to his page. “As the administrator, I know how likes are distributed among people from different parts of the world. I know the potential reach for the photos. So while you might see about a thousand likes for a photo, particularly a good one, it would probably have reached about 25,000 people on their newsfeeds.

“Moreover, I get insights into the true impact of a story and even into which geographical locations are most engaged with the posts. Interestingly, our second highest engagement is from Australia, followed by the United States and United Kingdom.”

It would however be wrong to say Theshan’s “concept” is “borrowed”. For one thing, Sri Lanka is not New York. As he himself admits it, “Our country has 2,500 years behind it, which means that nearly every photo we put has a past which goes beyond the on-the-surface story narrated by its subject(s). So if we have a photo of a nilame and we present his story, inevitably we reveal the perahera and its historical nuances to everyone who reads it.” Apt.

Theshan isn’t alone in this, by the way. Almost immediately after he started his page, people began asking whether they could team up with him. “I am liberal with that, but I value and want to work on a relationship of trust,” he explains, “So before anything else, if you want to partner up with me on this, we need to meet up. I don’t impose any restriction on you, but you must have an inborn penchant and interest for storytelling.”

This is where he comes to the “core” of his concept. “You would’ve already noticed it, but my page isn’t just or even mainly about pretty pictures. Content matters. That is why, whenever I scout for stories, I get people to talk openly and candidly. If they appear to be closeted and reserved and try giving me generic answers, I put out a list of questions on them. Not that photos aren’t privileged either, which is why I always tell people (before I record their stories) that I’m taking them.”

The values which his site stands for are pragmatic and at the same time laudable. Here’s a summing up: “The opinions given on HOSL are solely of an individual who has a freedom to think and speak like any other freeborn citizen. Any bias on gender, race or deductions made would be based solely on the reader’s own interpretation of facts. HOSL does not promote any gender discrimination or racist and religious division, but only wishes to highlight various issues/aspects in relation to Sri Lanka anthropology.”

He was also involved in two international projects. One, which involved the United Nations, was the UN Millennium Campaign which sought stories from several countries. “It was called ‘My World’,” Theshan remembers, “and we clamoured for stories throughout Colombo. It was fun, to put it mildly, and we were not really sponsored. We did it for the pleasure it entailed. I roamed around Colombo with two UN storytellers from New York and collected some amazing stories. Added to that, I was the translator for them, and I selected photographs were published at the UN Headquarters in New York.”

The second project was with the New York Times, and was less mundane. “The concept it revolved around was interesting. We had to come up with stories relating to people’s passwords. In other words, we had to conjure stories revolving around the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of passwords, or simply put the reason behind choosing a particular code. It could have been for Facebook, for your office computer, but rather than just revealing what it is, you’d explain why you decided on it.” The stories were published in the New York Times Magazine.

Theshan comes back to “Humans of Sri Lanka”. He sobers. And reflects. “I suppose it has been insightful for me, personally speaking. I admit it’s not easy, far from it in fact. Yes, you may consider my page to be a ‘trivial’. But it’s not. Brandon Stanton even wrote a book based on his stories. He has about 6,000 portraits. I have more than a hundred, and we average almost a picture a day. So yes, our next step would be to publish what our people have told and are telling us.”
And here he sums it all up. “Sri Lankans love to read. They love to share what they live through. More relevantly, they are willing to let go of their hopes and desires to others, because that’s what we are good at doing: sharing things. We also have a proud history behind us. What I’ve done is to bring all that together: in other words, to wed our love for stories with our love for telling them. The combination, you must admit, couldn’t be more perfect, particularly given we have more than 13,000 followers on Facebook alone!

“I hence don’t consider myself to be a businessman. We are not running this for profit. I’d like to think we’re rendering a service to the country. I’d love to think we are contributing what we have – whether it’s our history or culture or even the food we eat – to the world. Has the effort been worth all that? My god yes!”

Sri Lankans can count on one person then to act as their “ambassador”. He has a name. Theshan Alwis. We should say “Thank you”, we believe. And smile. Fittingly.

You can email Theshan Alwis and his page via if you are interested.