“I’m not a religious person,” says Sony World Photography award winner Alys Tomlinson during a chat with It’s Nice That about Ex-Voto, her latest book-length project.
Given that it sees her training her lens on pan-European sites of Christian pilgrimage, this lack of faith may seem initially disarming. And yet, the more you immerse yourself in this work – which is out now on Gost Books this year – the more you realise that her search for the ex-votos (votive offerings left at sites of worship) of the title hints at something beyond the rigors of organised religion.
Alys feels that her academic background — she has an MA in Anthropology – has impacted massively and positively on her photographic practice, noting that the two disciplines regularly cross over. “Lots of photographers structure their work in the same way as anthropologists,” she says, “working on long-term, research-led projects, and immersing themselves in the study of human behaviour, place, and culture.”
Previous projects have seen her document everything from Quaker communities in deepest Derbyshire to Blazin’ Squad fans waiting to see their heroes take the stage at Wembley Arena, via a pair of teenage fishing fanatics, and the aspiring baseball players of the Bronx. However her first immersion in the world of pilgrimage was inspired by viewing of Jessica Hausner’s 2009 feature film Lourdes. “I found the atmosphere, hope, and traditions portrayed in the film intriguing, I was curious about what drew people to Lourdes.
And so, as part of her MA dissertation, Alys travelled to France. The resulting (eponymous) series saw her capturing Lourdes as a destination, a colour-saturated tourist site. Ex-Voto is graver, starker, shot in gloriously rich monochrome. Comprising of images shot at Lourdes, Ballyvourney (in Ireland) and Polish pilgrimage site Mount Grabarka, Alys captures the private items pilgrims leave in public spaces.
Focussed as much on the landscape as those who populate it – and the portraiture here is almost luminous, her subject’s faces seemingly wrenched from before the dawn of modernity – Ex-Voto hums with a quietude that speaks to the depths of the soul. Even if you happen to think that the big man upstairs is little more than a figment of the collective imagination.
“I certainly haven’t converted,” Alys says when asked to detail what she got – if anything – out of spending so much time at sites of worshipful contemplation. “And while I disagree with many aspects of religious doctrine, I gained a sense of peace, calm, and serenity at these sits and I now have a much better understanding of the motivation of pilgrims. There was so much compassion and kindness on display, particularly in Lourdes, that it was hard not to be moved just by being there: looking, observing, and experiencing.”