The Jaffna Lens: Vernacular Photography from the Peninsula

Jaffna Central College, Jaffna Vindhya Buthpitiya (Sri Lanka, September 2018)

“The Jaffna Lens” exhibition

"The Jaffna Lens: Vernacular Photography from the Peninsula" exhibition

The Jaffna Lens featured a collection of early, and contemporary photographs and narratives exploring notions of presence/absence and expression/silence in relation to vernacular photography from Jaffna.

Jaffna, it has been suggested by photographer Swaminathar Kanagaratnam Lawton (1851-1919) who founded the S.K. Lawton & Co. studio in Jaffna in 1876, was the birthplace of photography not only in Ceylon, but ‘the East’ with the introduction of daguerreotype-making as early as the 1840s.


"The Jaffna Lens: An Exhibition of Photography from the Peninsula", Sri Lanka, 2018. (Photograph by Vindhya Buthpitiya)

Based on nine months of doctoral research on popular photography in Jaffna carried out by Vindhya Buthpitiya, the Jaffna Lens seeks to explore how Jaffna has been pictured by photographers living and working in Jaffna. Serving as both medium and site for conformity, resistance and exchange, vernacular photography from Jaffna offers intriguing visual insight into the complexities that lie at the intersection of identity, politics and place.

The peninsula’s vibrant tradition of studio photography has developed throughout the twentieth century. More recently, through decades of conflict and interlinked political and socio-economic uncertainty, the images produced by Jaffna’s studio photographers have met the demands of both individuals and the state. Today’s photographs continue to address these demands, sometimes reconciling the two, as observed through their everyday use and circulation. For decades, studio practice played a significant role in helping residents preserve memories of their lifeworlds, picture their aspirations, and mediate between their present and pictured selves. In the remains of Jaffna’s studio archives, whittled by war and displacement, we begin to be confronted by absences, further pared by rapid developments to accessible technology. The advent of compact digital cameras, mobile phone photography and social media, mark the transition from material to digital – resulting in the emergence of new visual narratives. These seek to present the overlooked, contend with existing visual and political narratives, and query and assert presence and significant questions of self/representation.

Photography featured included work by N. Rajaratnam, Tharmapalan Tilaxan, ST Nirosha, Benislos Thushan, Sancheyan Nanthakumar, and ‘Digital Storytelling’ a citizen journalism initiative centred on photography and social media.

The Jaffna Lens also featured

  • ‘Kerosene’, ‘Paper’ and ‘Broken’, three Jaffna-centred short documentary films exploring themes of conflict and resilience by British-Sri Lankan filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam.
  • ‘Documentary Art – Past/Present’, a talk by artist Cassie Machado, exploring her work in photography and film within the context of documentary art practice. The talk will be followed by a
  • Screening of her short film Añar/அஞ#/මෙන$ඝාතය.
    – ‘Photographing the Politics of Place’, a talk by Jaffna-based photographer Tharmapalan Tilaxan
  • ‘Photography and Storytelling from Jaffna’, an interactive workshop led by Benislos Thushan, Founder of @DSTJourney, a citizen journalism initiative centred on photography and social media.

Organised by Vindhya Buthpitiya (PhD Candidate in Visual Anthropology at University College London) and Shiyamala Selvaratnam (Co-ordinator at S J V Chelvanayagam Memorial Trust)

Jaffna Lens, special programme