The perspective of pilgrimage at the Sony World Photography Awards

From Alys Tomlinson’s ‘Ex Voto’ series, at Somerset House, London, 2018

Overall winner and Photographer of the Year at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is Alys Tomlinson for her series Ex-Voto. A British winner for the first time in ten years, Tomlinson presents a series of black and white photographs across the genres of portrait, landscape, and still life exploring the geography and legacies of particular European pilgrimage sites. In Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland), and Grabarka (Poland), a distillation of details with carved crosses in rocks, suspended animation in forest clearings, and quietly direct faces form a study in contemplation that reaches for depth in faith and history.

It is a superlative achievement, rendered with a poise and sincerity that seemed to eclipse the noisy exuberance of other entries. Tomlinson entered in the category for professional photographers called ‘Discovery’, new this year to the competition. It appears to tap a vein of invested story-telling, something that goes beyond the documentary, externalised interest of other places and people. Also shortlisted in this category was the series Els Enfarinat by Antonio Gibotta, in which scenes of ‘the Floured’s War’ are shown taking place in Ibi, Spain every December – a flamboyant festival of smoke, fireworks, and enacted combat with reverberations in the biblical festival of the Day of the Innocents. Both Gibotta’s work and Tomlinson’s reveal ‘discoveries’ that suggest an internalised interest, a connection of world with something soulfully and historically meaningful. In this case, perhaps surprisingly, it is also Christian. Here an observant photography, far from being blind to cultural politicisation of the visual field, or blind to the global, diversifying, colour of the contemporary environment can also see the Bible, the horizon of Christian faith, and the sincerely held habits of belief in European traditions. Further, it can do so without suspicion, without irony, and with a lens porous to the visual meaningfulness of spiritual observance.

Nun, 1921 by August Sander.

Tomlinson herself feels the attraction of simple faith, though she does not share it. Her time at the pilgrimage sites grew out of a residency at Lourdes at the Marie Saint-Frai in 2014. Her long-term project there had spanned her studies for an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage (SOAS), during which time she continued in documentary and editorial photography. But it was the contrary impetus of a world defined by ‘the peace and the space that people carve out to just sit and think’, as she has said in interview, that drew her attention. In this sense, Tomlinson’s recognition of faith is registered in images that seem to concentrate slowed time and intentionality. Her own perspective shifts in what is immersive sympathy with, and not simply conceptual accommodation of an ‘other’ community. The views in the photographs imply her own viewing directness, the near-tactility of objects, and the self-positioning of her gaze – not to mention the aesthetic of black-and-white across different focal zones. There’s a hum to the series as a whole that resists any suggestion of artful distance, instead resonating with the personal effects of a certain kind of reflective action. The portrait above bears comparison, for example, to an August Sander portrait from 1921. The frontal pose and the framing of the figure against a blurred background give the same nominal setting for the same subject, but Sander keeps the societal difference and the signs of his classification in view (as evidenced in his 1929 publication Face of Our Time), whereas Tomlinson renders at life-size an immediacy and vulnerability of person. Across her series indeed, we find this attentive and searching gaze, reflected and held in a vision that is at once photographic and spiritual.

Roots and routes of art and theology in Chichester

Plaque marking the site where Bishop William Otter was interred, Chichester Cathedral, 1840.

In my new role as the Bishop Otter Scholar for theology and the arts, I have started to explore the potential avenues for continuing my doctoral research in photography and the Bible. Where my patrons thus far been Bible Society and the University of Gloucestershire, now I am employed by Bishop Martin Warner of the Diocese of Chichester, and will be affiliated with ASK (Centre for Art and the Sacred) at King’s College London. This finds me reflecting on new starts much as I did at the beginning of my artist residency at Trinity College in Bristol: it’s tempting to think of this institutional identity in static terms of association and contracts of exchange – the ‘business’ side of life commonly works by these markers. But just as I reflected on journeys, pilgrimage, and passages at Trinity, I want to begin here with a reflection on this ‘journey’ side of life, now with a changing sense of movement and relation.

Continuing as I am in a role previously occupied by Dr Naomi Billingsley, it is entirely fitting to be guided into Chichester quite literally, in the form of an app she helped to develop, Alight: Art and the Sacred. Free to download, it provides audio commentary for a gentle walking route from the city walls to Chichester Cathedral (approximately 1/2-an-hour), and then around the Cathedral taking in its many artworks by, among others, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Marc Chagall (just over an hour). Interactive and insightful, it naturalises a engagement with the world that is also rich and deep with history, art, meaning, and above all, spirituality. I was entranced during the outside route: peripheral noises of cars and people passing were (at times unnervingly) connected in reality and recording, and thronging crowds on the high street really did bring the sense of pilgrimage to life. The genial commentary provided by Professor Ben Quash weaves a vibrancy and immediacy between tangible, physical connecting (across city wall, street plan, and cathedral edifice) and the retracing of history and heart as centred on the spiritual centre of the city.

Finding a climax in the approach to the cathedral entrance, the sense of arrival is reframed by the vertical dimension, where Bishop Martin comments on the spire’s heavenly orientation. Here indeed is the marker that defies all other markers, the catapulting idea that, as he quotes Augustine, we come to God not by navigation (Chichester Cathedral can be seen from the sea), but by love. Every footstep, every decision, every effort of exploration, and thinking that one might conjure a full-stop achievement of horizontal containment is sprung open by the mystery of being found, already, always. The urgency of every pilgrimage is to somehow re-orient oneself to this dimension, to find ‘thin’ places and ‘slow’ time. In my turning into words, this will be an (all too human) attempt to stay close to wisdom, or a wisdom tradition. As I continue blogging, different directions and focusses will emerge, but I hope to journey in the model of Alight’s app, with photography’s realism and ‘nearness’ to help me along the way.

It’ll be natural enough to stop and stare and discuss things: inside the Cathedral, the works of art are just such a series of stations, and for this part of the app we’re treated to a range of different voices connecting image with symbol and text (from Professor Aaron Rosen on the Chagall window to Head Cathedral Guide Dr Judith Lee on the South Transept window). A long-time favourite of mine, Sutherland’s Noli Me Tangere (1960) is as jewel-like as Canon Dr Anthony Cane evokes. With its bright blocks of red and green, and Jesus zig-zagging across horizontal and vertical dimensions like he owns them, it’s a beautiful and dynamic moment of transformation and revelation. At times the discussions of art works remain self-contained in a way that misses the pilgrimage setting – as no doubt my own of the future will – but on the whole, another’s captivation reveals previously hidden gems, like Karen Coke on the monkey in the Charter panels of Lambert Barnard (1530s). My own viewfinder looked down to the floor, finding a testimony to Bishop Otter himself, as seen in the photograph above. Nearby, the commemorative inscription for his life ends with words from James 3:17, a fitting motto for any following pilgrim:

But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

Interfaith art competition entry

Star of DavidStar of David
This is one of my submissions to an art competition run by the Three Faiths Forum in London this month. It’s a template for a print that will have gold detail in some of the fire-trails – I’m about to discover the techniques involved in using laser-cutting to create a stencil, followed by the application of spray/glitter. The Star of David is revealed in a blaze of kaleidoscopic fire and cloud, referring to the guidance received by the Israelites from Yahweh during their wanderings in the Sinai Desert. Guidance is often sought in the heavens in early religions, from the alignment of stars to weather patterns. Here I wanted to pull that down to an earthy connection with the land, to a viewpoint that shifts between the two perspectives, and so conflates the immanence of Yahweh to both within and around. The pattern is about the formation of purpose and hope for a chosen people, even in the midst of confusion and a seemingly never-ending journey.