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Alys Tomlinson shortlisted for 2017 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

18 December 2017

We catch up with Alys to hear about her fascinating project Ex-Voto and being shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize 2017.    

© Alys Tomlinson

How did you get into photography? 
I’ve always been really into film and cinematography, but I come from a family of very wordy and bookish academics so a visual career wasn’t an obvious option for me. At university I studied English, but Dad gave me his 35mm Pentax and I spent a lot of time doing street photography. Then I enrolled on a photography evening course and started shooting for the student paper. It wasn’t until I did the PgCert at Central Saint Martins that I really studied photography formally.

© Alys Tomlinson
How has your style developed over time? 
When I started, I was most interested in reportage photography but recently my personal work has taken more of a documentary/fine art direction and I’ve enjoyed using a large format plate camera for the ‘Ex-Voto’ project to really slow the process down. It’s only with this project that I’ve really given my personal work the time and space needed to start pulling together a substantial body of work. My MA in Anthropology also encouraged me to think about my work in a different way, allowing me to focus on research and development of ideas, but also grounding these ideas in theory and writing. My commercial work covers lifestyle, interiors and travel and is all very natural, but I hope also thoughtfully composed.

© Alys Tomlinson

What inspires you? 
I’ve always been a big film fan and it was a Jessica Hausner film called ‘Lourdes’ that really sparked my interest in pilgrimage and led me to start the ‘Ex-Voto’ project. Recent films I’ve loved include ‘Ida’ (dir. Pawlikowski) and I’m also very interested in the anthropological film work of people such as Jean Rouch. Other than film, I’m a naturally curious person and have always been fascinated by people’s motivations, beliefs and cultural and social interactions.

© Alys Tomlinson
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing! Do you enter many awards? 
Thank you! I probably enter a few awards a year, mostly with my personal work. I’m a little selective over what I enter, mainly as it can get very expensive! I tend to check out the jury in advance and then look at the type of work that has won in the past. I think competitions can often be a bit of a lottery (Taylor Wessing included), but getting recognition can definitely be a confidence boost and give you motivation to keep going with a project. I have had magazine features from entering competitions in the past and it has made it easier to contact picture editors, critics, curators etc, especially if they’ve been involved in the judging process.

© Alys Tomlinson
Have you got any advice for anyone starting out in the industry? 
I’m not sure I’m really in a position to give advice as I’m still learning a lot myself, but I would say that it’s important to be realistic about the changes in the industry. There are more photographers than ever now and less work. Unless you are totally committed to a career in photography, you’re unlikely to get very far. If you’re wanting to assist a particular photographer whose work you admire, then writing a targeted and personal email (or even letter!) is much better then sending out a blanket email. Also, understand that it will usually take several years to start building a name for yourself. Stick to what interests you in terms of style and approach, rather then following trends and emulating other photographers.

© Alys Tomlinson
What does the AOP do for you? 
I recently updated my online AOP portfolio and was commissioned by an agency that found me through the ‘Find a Photographer’ page. I’d had a couple of potential clients contact me this way in the past, but this was the first time it had resulted in a big job. I found my old studio/office space through the AOP and made some great friends as a result and I’ve also found photographers on the AOP forum (or list) to be really generous with their knowledge and advice, which has saved me a few times.

© Alys Tomlinson
How is your work life balance as a photographer?
I do really struggle to get a balance and find that often work is demanding and all-consuming. Luckily, I have an understanding partner who also works in the creative field. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so will often be up late editing a job and my schedule is very unpredictable. It has made things difficult in the past, but there is nothing else I’d rather do. When I’m roaming the Polish countryside with my huge, bulky camera, discovering intriguing people and places, that’s when I’m happiest.
Tell us about your shortlisted image for Taylor Wessing
The portrait was taken in Lourdes, across from the famous baths. Markus is an Austrian pilgrim and was volunteering with the Order of Malta, a Catholic organisation with strong links to Lourdes. I was struck by his distinctive uniform and quiet, yet strong presence. He was in Lourdes to help take care of the sick and this image was taken in a quieter moment on the banks of the Gave de Pau river. Although he’s a young man, the photograph looks like it could have been taken in a different era. It’s direct but gentle at the same time. It also highlights the importance of the relationship between person, faith and the landscape. Shot on 5x4, large format film, the image evokes a distinct stillness and reflects the mysterious, timeless quality present at these sites of great spiritual contemplation.
This portrait was taken as part of a long-term, personal project called ‘Ex-Voto’.

© Alys Tomlinson, shortlisted image for Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017
What is Ex-Voto?
‘Ex-Voto’ is my main project at the moment and I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now. An ‘Ex-Voto’ is a religious offering given to fulfill a vow and I started to think about the things that people leave behind at pilgrimage sites as markers of their devotion. As the project developed, I began to focus on the relationship between faith, landscape and nature. The project now has three visual strands: still lifes of the ex-votos, formal portraits and wider landscapes, all shot on black and white, 5x4 format film which allows for a more considered approach and reflects the
timelessness of each location. The project started in Lourdes, but I’ve since explored Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland and Poland.

© Alys Tomlinson
What’s next for you? 
I’m working on developing ‘Ex-Voto’ into an exhibition and a book. I’ve just joined an informal ‘Photobook’ collective of photographers all working on different book projects, so it’s great to have a supportive network there for advice. Funds permitting, I also hope to make it to a several photo festivals this year. I’ve been to Rencontres d’Arles for the past 8 years or so and I’d also really like to go to Cortona On The Move and Organ Vida in Croatia. I find festivals really inspiring, with a great mix of famous names and emerging talent. The shows are often intelligently curated, with the work exhibited in really innovative spaces.

© Alys Tomlinson
You can see more of Alys’ work here 

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