Sunday, July 23, 2017

Ashi Jayatilake: Wading into the wild

Susan Sontag, scholar, cultural critic, feminist, and many other things besides, once wrote on photography. She contended or rather implied that the willingness or lack thereof of someone to have himself/herself committed to a film reel indicated the nature of the society he/she lived in. The West had, on that count, progressed and become more transparent. The East, by comparison, was lagging behind, because of that superstition about the ills and evils which befall those whose profiles can be seen by everyone (“As Waha Kata Waha”). Going by its proliferation in our country, however, I would say that we are (thankfully) moving on.

Photography is a dismal art. It takes patience, coincidence, luck, and more often than not sheer recklessness and daring to get the perfect shot, which, by the way, is a myth. We dream of that perfect shot. We thrive on it, hoping that we will get it as we go on clicking at whatever we want to commit to posterity. Personally speaking, I have been chastened by, irritated, and sometimes moved to frustration by my inability to capture anything that does justice to what has been captured. I believe that it’s worse, and by default more strenuous, when it comes to wildlife photography.

And not for no reason. One can control human beings. Even infants. Animals, however, are a different kettle of fish altogether. In her book Sontag contends that photography prevents the photographer from intervening in his/her subject-matter. Put simply, the person who “intervenes” can’t be a proper photographer. This is truer of wildlife photography, where the more you manipulate what you are trying to capture, the more discernibly that act of manipulation will be reflected in the final product. Ashi Jayatilake, whom I met two weeks back, would agree.

Because of the misconception that there’s a ready market for it, most young people I know take to profile and event photography from their schooldays. I noted in my article on Pilibimbu that our children are taking to the camera because of a horde of reckonable societies in their schools. But all that is, in the end, distorted by what we think sells. Pictures of smiling faces sell. Pictures of babies sell. Pictures of birthday parties, pretty flowers, weddings, and AGMs of top-notch companies sell. We have conditioned ourselves to accept this, for all time. Dismal, I should think, which is why I am happy when I find that Ashi, and people like her, beg to differ.

Ashvini Jayatilake was born to a family of photographers. She belongs to the third generation, after her grandfather Ashoka and her father Chitral. Obviously, she couldn’t have escaped their influence as a girl, so I am not in the least surprised when she tells me that she used to fiddle around with her father’s camera equipment from an early age. Serious photography, however, would dawn on her later, when after turning eight she accompanied her father to her grandmother’s house and he began taking snapshots of a nest in a tree. After a few minutes he had left for a breather, leaving the earnest daughter to (what else?) fiddle around with the camera.

“I ended up capturing a squirrel eating a nut,” she remembers, “One thing led to another, and we entered it into a competition organised by John Keells. I won two prizes there: second place in the Junior Category and a special award as a young competitor.” Given her age, this spurred her to enter into other competitions, including one organised at Visakha Vidyalaya. But winning contests wouldn’t have been enough, so when her father was compiling a collection of wildlife snapshots (“Moments of Truth in the Wilderness”) in 2009, some of her photographs were included. “A dream come true,” she describes it for me.

Her next encounter with serious photography would be in the wild. In 2009/10 she had accompanied her father and a friend of his, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, to Yala. Near the Uraniya tank, they had spotted an otherwise ordinary scene: the carcass of a calf being doted on by its mother, with a leopard and her cub lurking nearby. What transpired soon afterwards, however, had enflamed young Ashi.

“The leopard began leading the cub to the carcass after the mother cow left, perhaps to teach it, only to be chased away by a set of ferocious and hungry wild boars. It was rather extraordinary. I remember clicking away with my 500mm lens, a disadvantage given that I couldn’t zoom in enough. My father snapped away with his considerably easier and more flexible 800mm lens. I must say, I was quite happy with the shots I took. They taught me to keep an eye out for the extraordinary thereafter.”

The “thereafter” is, of course, rather copious and merits a separate article to itself. Suffice it to say that several visits to Yala and other parts of Sri Lanka later, and before one first-time visit to Africa (in August 2015) which obviously had entranced her (“You can’t escape its appeal when you’re there”), she and a friend of hers called Dimitri Goonewardena had compiled a collection of wildlife snapshots, “Growing in the Wild”, which had been published in 2013. I came across a review of it by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne the other day, where he noted the following:

"The last few years have seen a number of books published in the portfolio genre on Sri Lankan wildlife. My first impression is that this is one of the best."

Having perused one or two photographs, I can contend that Ashi has stood by her truism, gleaning the essence of the outdoors while eschewing the clich├ęd, the ordinary. Her latest venture, in Trincomalee to witness sperm whales (last April), saw her swim to an entirely different world 40 miles down under. “There is activity in the wilderness,” she observes, “Underwater, there’s hardly any movement. It takes a great deal of patience to get a perfect shot, because the whales and every other form of marine life go about their way with ease, regardless of visitors.”

Taking pictures wasn’t her only pastime, of course. At her school, Museaus College, she had indulged in rowing. Elsewhere she had learnt to dance, under the formidable Kanthi Ranchigoda, though because of rowing she had been compelled to abandon it two years ago. Of these two, rowing interests her considerably. Apparently it had taught her the values that would prove important as she found herself being dragged to photography. I think she puts it best: “In rowing there are no seniors and subordinates. You blend into everyone. That’s needed. And important.”

In the end, their efforts bore fruit. For four years, Museaus College had been encountered defeat at their annual Regatta with Ladies College. Everything changed last year, however, when Ashi was inducted as Vice Captain. “Earlier we had lost by two or three points, hardly a consolation. But in 2016, we prevailed. That was our first victory in a long time. No one expected it. No one bargained for it. And it wasn’t luck, mind you. It was how we operated together, as one. That is why I can say I learnt about patience with it.”

It was that streak of patience which helped her out in her photographic pursuits, by the way. A testament to how she’s progressed, no doubt, but it interests me less for how the world views her than how she has nurtured her art to suit her temperament. I sense a patient, easygoing individual beneath her, suave, simple, optimistic, and not a little ambitious. Having completed her A Levels last year, she has now enrolled herself in the City School of Architecture, where (and I am not in the least surprised) that whole visual sense of being in the wild has helped her.

I fervently rebel against the school of thought which believes in art as an inherited gift. The truth is that photography, like every other art-form, has languished for want of young, idealistic artists. Ashi has forged something for herself. And to be sure, she has been nurtured by her family, particularly her father. But then she’s encountered enough hurdles, in the wild and on the water, to encourage her to inculcate her art to suit her temperament. Perhaps that shows in her work, perhaps it doesn’t. I wouldn’t know. In any case, going back to Sontag, if she was one of those brash, assertive artists hell-bent on merely creating names for themselves, her act of intervening in what she’d captured would have shown. It has not. Tellingly, I should think, especially with respect to how disciplined she has been in her passion.

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 23 2017