In Focus: Alys Tomlinson


    This ‘In Focus’ shines a spotlight on the life and work of Alys Tomlinson giving the reader an enhanced overview of the artist, her general working practice, and an interview with Alys with links to recent videos and podcasts.


    Alys Tomlinson was born in 1975 and grew up in Brighton. She currently lives and works in London.  She studied photography at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and has recently completed a MA in Anthropology at SOAS, the University of London which ties in with her long-term, personal interest in faith and pilgrimage.  Alys is drawn to the relationship between people and places exploring themes of environment, belonging, and identity.

  • Alys Tomlinson was born in 1975 and grew up in Brighton. She currently lives and works in London.  She studied photography at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and has recently completed a MA in Anthropology at SOAS, the University of London which ties in with her long-term, personal interest in faith and pilgrimage.  Alys is drawn to the relationship between people and places exploring themes of environment, belonging, and identity.


    Her major body of work which has garnered great acclaim is ’Ex-Voto’ (2016-2018) and explores Christian pilgrimage sites in Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland) and Grabarka (Poland). Ex-votos’ are left by pilgrims as expressions of hope and gratitude, creating a tangible narrative between faith, person and the landscape. ‘Ex-Voto’ comprises of still lives of the mementos, as well as formal portraiture and landscapes and evoke the spiritual life and mysticism of these places. ‘Ex-Voto’ was published by GOST in 2019.

  • “Photography gives me freedom to explore ideas and allows me to tell the stories of others, to discover the unseen and document that in a very personal way.”

  • In 2018 Alys won the Photographer of the Year Award at the Sony World Photography Awards. The prize allowed her to continue working with Vera, an Orthodox Christian nun whose portrait is a central and powerful work in the Ex-Voto series. ‘Faithful’ explores the life of Vera in photographs and film and gives a deeper context in the portrayal of living a life of faith.


    In 2019, Alys was nominated to exhibit at Recontres D’Arles as part of the New Discovery Awards. Her exhibition comprising photographs from ‘Ex-Voto’, ‘The Faithful’ and the short film, ‘Vera’ , won the Public Prize of the New Discovery Awards. Recently Alys (and her co-director Cecile Embleton) have received a development grant from the Sundance Institute to expand their short film ‘Vera’ into a feature length documentary film.

  • Lost Summer

    The Lost Summer series consists of Tomlinson´s recent prom portraits photographed in June 2020 as lockdown eased. The prom portraits capture the poignancy of a lost summer for teenagers who were unable to sit their school exams or mark this significant step in growing up and leaving school.


    With school proms cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the easing of lockdown, Tomlinson photographed 44 teenagers near her home in North London, all dressed up in their prom outfits. Instead of the usual settings of school halls or hotel function rooms, she captured them in their domestic outdoor spaces, of the gardens and streets where they live. They represent a loss and longing, but also celebrate each teenager as an individual, navigating this extraordinary time.

  • Lost Summer began as an idea when the artist was frustrated that she couldn’t travel to work on her existing projects. Once lockdown eased she began to move around her neighbourhood photographing the teenage children of local friends from her street and the surrounding area and posted them on Instagram. As word spread, so the project grew and the significance of the subject matter became more apparent as summer evolved. The teenagers have not only dealt with a lost summer but confront an uncertain future.


    The prom portraits are a testimony to the resilience of these young people. There is an intensity in the gaze which meets the viewer and suggests an untold narrative which is yet to be revealed. The portraits of Drew, Ines and Jameela are self-assured and defiant, yet they also suggest surrender and courage.

    Tomlinson is interested in the relationship between people and place and in much of her work she explores the recurring themes of loss, ritual and belonging. In her critically acclaimed series ‘Ex- Voto’, portraits of religious pilgrims are often set in sacred outdoor spaces and in the ‘prom series’ these outdoor settings remind us of the calming and transformative quality of nature. The prom portraits represent a merging of two worlds – the inner and the outer, the psychological and the physical.


    Three works from ‘Lost Summer’ - ‘Samuel’, ‘Jameela’ and ‘Jack’ - won the 2020 Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize.

  • Q&A with the artist


    HBFA: Where does your fascination for ritual and pilgrimage come from?  Is it the element of self-sacrifice or personal journey that fascinates you?


    AT: The fiction film ‘Lourdes’ was what really inspired my interest in pilgrimage. The notion of pilgrimage has changed over time and although historically it has been about physical exertion, many people now arrive in Lourdes by plane or bus. The element of sacrifice is important to understand how these places became so significant. I have always been curious about pilgrimage sites and for me it is also an opportunity to escape from the city. These sacred spaces are often set in nature and offer peace and tranquillity. I am interested in how transformative these places can be, for the believer and non-believer alike.


    HBFA: Do you think not being brought up with religion made it more fascinating for you? Sometimes people bought up with a religion tend to reject it later on in life and those that are not bought up with religion find it fascinating and seek it out.


    AT: Not being brought up with a religious belief perhaps made me more curious and I felt compelled to find out more. I have always been interested in places of worship, religious iconography and ritual.


    HBFA: In the context of Ex – Voto and Vera, do you feel your work is stronger when you remain as an observer/outsider or when you become more integrated into the community and familiar with these experiences?


    AT: Yes, becoming more integrated gave me greater confidence about what I was doing. Obviously, access gives you an intimacy. I am very aware and respectful when working with these people and places, even though I don’t share their deep faith. But it is an honest exchange and if someone asks me if I am religious, then I tell them the truth and explain that I am interested to know more about their beliefs.


    HBFA: You exhibited Ex-Voto at Chichester Cathedral – how did the audience react to that?


    AT: I loved showing my work there as it connected with a wider, non-art specific audience. Showing the work at Chichester Cathedral gave the images a different meaning and positioned the project historically and culturally. The reaction was very positive, as visitors were not expecting to see photographs hanging in a cathedral. It also gave me more freedom than a conventional gallery – for instance, we hung portraits of some of the pilgrims that were over three metres in size in the east transept. So, you had these enormous, striking faces looking down on you as you walked through the space.


    HBFA: Are there particular venues or places where you would love to see this work shown? 


    AT: Yes, I would really like to see the work shown in more public places and photography festivals. I also exhibited at Side Gallery in Newcastle which was great and at the Rencontres d’Arles, which has a different and very international audience.



    HBFA: Tell me more about the film Vera? 


    AT: I just recently had great news that we (I am co-directing with Cécile Embleton) have received a development grant from Sundance for the making of a feature length documentary film about Vera. We had already made a short film, but this will give us an opportunity to develop ideas further.

    Vera lives in a monastery just outside of Minsk in Belarus. She is an enigmatic, complex figure. The photograph of her in the Ex-Voto series became one of the most significant images of the project.

    If I hadn’t met Vera, I wouldn’t be making the film.  There is so much more to learn about her.  The film is an in-depth exploration of her past and present, merging her interior and external worlds and looking at the relationship she has with nature and the community around her. I am planning one more filming trip to Belarus at the end of the year, if that is possible. We are aiming to release the film at the end of next year.


    HBFA: I have been looking at some of the images on your Instagram taken during liturgy at the boarding house in her convent in Belarus and they are so powerful.  One realises how life in countries like Belarus and the former Soviet Union has been so hard for so many people.  This is also reflected in the harsh landscapes.


    AT: Yes, some of the people taken in by the nuns have had incredibly difficult lives and you can see it in the faces. Many of the men and women who form part of the wider community led by the monastery are ex-convicts, addicts and the homeless. Belarus is a country that has been through so much upheaval, politically, economically and culturally. Many people have had very hard lives and poverty and unemployment rates are high. We were there filming in January and it was very challenging, the landscapes are beautiful but can seem bleak and unforgiving in the winter.


    HBFA: Do you ever wonder about showing your work in the countries where you have been working i.e. the Ex- Voto Project shown in countries like Poland, Belarus, Ireland etc?


    AT: Yes, absolutely, I would love to show the work in Poland or in Belarus, but it is a question of funding and opportunity. One of the best shows I had was at a small arts centre in Ballyvourney, Ireland. It was very special as the whole community turned out for the opening. The convent in Belarus is also really keen to have a screening of the film, which we will organise once it’s completed.


    HBFA: What made you decide to do an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage?


    AT: Well, I wanted to further my studies and didn’t want to do a photography MA, so I decided to do this course at SOAS to enrich my way of thinking.  It gave me a grounding in theory and anthropology and I wrote my dissertation about phenomenology and bodily practice in Lourdes. I enjoyed the academic research and writing and although my words didn’t end up in the final ‘Ex-Voto’ book, it definitely influenced the way I thought about and approached the project.


    HBFA: To what extent do you think your MA at SOAS will dictate the future direction of your work?


    AT: Well, obviously I chose that Masters course because of my interest in pilgrimage, but I don’t think my future focus will be exclusively about pilgrimage. I am definitely drawn to similar themes though, such as faith, identity and belonging. At SOAS, I was able to broaden my thinking. There are, of course, hundreds of pilgrimages that happen internationally and I could almost make it a lifetime’s project, but I think instead that there will be recurring ideas and motifs that drive my work.


    Gli Isolani (The Islanders)

    HBFA: Can you tell us about the project nominated for the Prix Elysée?


    AT: ‘The Islanders’ project in Italy has some overlapping themes with Ex–Voto, in that it focuses on faith, loss and ritual. My original idea came from when I worked as a photographer for Time Out in Venice and spent weeks there photographing all aspects of the city. I particularly remember the cemetery island of San Michele and watching mourners coming back on boats in the mist. I found this quite mysterious and the image stayed with me.


    I am fascinated by Venice and how the life of those living on other islands in the lagoon is so different from the typical Venice that the tourist sees. In some islands the people live in a very rural way, but the project aims to contrast the islands of Venice and the Venetian lagoon with islands found in the south of Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia.


    HBFA: It is interesting that you have chosen two contrasting parts of Italy – north and south and obviously there is a strong North/South divide with significant social implications?


    AT: Yes, that was a deliberate choice because I am interested in the contrast between the people and the landscape. I hope to explore the deep-rooted traditions in these areas.  I am continually drawn to water and the significance and representation of islanders.


    HBFA: In Ex Voto you focused on the pilgrims but in this project who/what are you going to focus on?


    AT: In Venice, I plan to take photographs of Venetians who were born there, although I know they are very private people. Much of my work is about wandering and seeing what I find. In Sicily, I hope to photograph people in costume for Holy Week.  The history of rituals and tradition is the focal point of the community and I hope to uncover my own feelings and findings. I will work with a local assistant to find the right people and photograph them in costume. I was meant to be there at Easter this year but due to Covid that was obviously cancelled.


    I have two deadlines for the Prix Elysée – one is in mid-September when I have to do a 10-page proposal of outline sketches, ideas and research and the second is mid-January, when I have to submit my project portfolio.


    HBFA: Will you continue to use black and white photography in your project in Italy? 


    AT: I plan to work in black and white as this feels most appropriate to the uncovering of these communities and for the meditative and poetic approach I would like to take. Black and white creates a purity, simplicity and timelessness. It also reminds me of the darkroom where I started out as a photographer, so there is an element of nostalgia for me working this way.


    HBFA: Venice is such a crossroads of culture – East meets West and there is a strong influence of Islamic and oriental culture in their traditions and cultural heritage. Will you be exploring this and looking to reflect this at all in your project?


    AT: My projects are very exploratory in nature. I do carry out research beforehand, but it is often me coming into new situations and discovering things once I’m there. So, the Islamic influence is not something I would choose in advance or seek to focus on, although through some of the architecture and landscapes that I choose to photograph, there will inevitably be a presence and its influence will be evident.


    Lost Summer


    ATI should mention that during lockdown I got frustrated by not being able to travel, so once lockdown eased, I started doing a series of prom portraits in north London where I live, shot in black and white and using my old plate camera.


    HBFA: Were these teenagers you knew, family friends or neighbours?


    ATYes, initially they were friend’s kids that I knew were due to have their prom, but because of Covid all the exams were cancelled and so was their prom.  It’s been a really tough time for young people, with nothing to mark this significant step into adulthood. Through word of mouth, I began taking photos of other young people and through some teachers I knew, I met more teenagers who wanted to take part. I am hoping to make a small book of the work and I’m talking to a couple of publishers. I would like to do a print run of about 300 and the provisional book and project title is ‘Lost Summer.’


    HBFA: What have been the key milestones in your life that have influenced your work as an artist and how has your work shifted over the course of your career?


    ATI made a conscious decision when I started Ex-Voto to spend more time on personal projects. I felt stuck doing commercial work that wasn’t always very fulfilling and I decided to commit to make more personal work. Seven years ago when I started Ex-Voto, it took me on a path which I have continued to follow. Being represented by HackelBury Fine Art was important as it validated my personal work and allowed me to access the art world


    HBFA: What research and planning goes into a body of work before you start? How important is the process of making in comparison to the production of work?


    ATWith my projects, I’m always on a personal journey and I discover things along the way. Research and planning is key and I have to be organized, but not to the point where it overtakes and overly influences the image making. I go into each project with an open mind and try not to be too prescriptive. The process often helps to reveal what it is I am looking for.


    HBFA: How important is your relationship with social media and has it influenced your work in any way?


    ATFor me, Instagram is like a sketch book where I can share ideas and new work. It influences my work as it gives access to the minds of other artists and creatives and it is about sharing inspiration, ideas and influences.  I have made some friends through it as it provides a community, but I am not worried about how many followers I have or how many likes a post gets.


    HBFA: What are the key influences in your life and what inspires you as an artist?


    ATMy inspiration comes from wider sources than photography. I collect photobooks, and I am influenced by film, painting, poetry and literature. I find that ideas come when you are open to the world.


    HBFA: Do you have a favourite museum or gallery in London?


    AT: Yes, I really like the Whitechapel and South London Gallery – places that are out of the very centre of London. I also love The Hepworth in Wakefield, where several years ago I saw a fantastic show by Philip-Lorca diCorcia.


    HBFA: Can you talk a little more about the importance of film and the influence that filmmakers have had on your work?


    AT: I thought for a while I might want to be a cinematographer and I met my co-Director at an open day for the NFTS (National Film and Television School). I watch a lot of documentaries and particularly like the work of Alma Har’el. Other influences include Tarkovsky, Wim Wenders and Pawlikowski.


    HBFA: Do you have a daily routine or ritual that helps you find a structure in your work as an artist?


    ATEvery day is different, but I am quite disciplined, so I try to give myself structure and routine. I find that running helps clear my mind and at the moment I listen to podcasts while I’m editing.


    HBFA: You first studied English Literature and Communications at the University of Leeds – what made you pursue photography rather than writing as a career? Do you think studying literature has had an influence on the way you work as a photographer?  Is there a parallel for you in the way you tell stories with images rather than with words?


    AT: When I went to university, I didn’t have a clear idea of my career path. I did photography for the student paper and took a black and white photography evening class, but it wasn’t until after I graduated that I knew I wanted to pursue it as a career. Studying literature gave me an awareness of storytelling, structure and narrative. I often use literature and poetry as ideas for project titles. I make a lot of written notes during my projects, but I feel that I’m able to express myself better through images.


    HBFA: Is there a particular photographer who has had a major influence on your work?


    AT: There are too many to mention, but recently I have been influenced by the work of August Sander, Emmet Gowin, Judith Joy Ross and Andrea Modica.