I was breezing through the Guardian Weekly last weekend—the only physical version we get in the colonies—and I came across a couple of inches on Alys Tomlinson, the UK photographer who’d just won the Sony Photographer of the Year award.
Next to the column was a stunning portrait of a nun, from her award-winning work Ex-Voto, a series exploring pilgrimage in the modern age. Thanks to the wonders of the connected world, within five minutes I’d procured her email address, and soon got a hit back saying that she’d be delighted to do an interview. It’s not so complicated sometimes, this writing gig.
Alys grew up in Brighton, the now vogue seaside town an hour or so south of London. Whilst she didn’t grow up in an artistic family per se, Alys tells me that her parents encouraged her to approach the world laterally. “I grew up in a pretty left wing, academic family surrounded by books,” she says. “There was always lively debate going on and we were encouraged to think creatively.” When she hit her teens, Alys’ dad gifted her his Pentax 35mm. “I used to roam around Brighton taking photos of the landscapes, local parks and graffiti,” she tells me. The Pentax coincided with her mum introducing her to Robert Frank’s The Americans, which peaked Alys’ interest in the, “American wave of photographers from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.” Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, William Eggleston are the names mentioned, as is a Diane Arbus exhibition at the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) that had a profound effect on Alys photographic coming of age. “I really admire artists who reappropriate and reinvent photography,” she says. “But ultimately, I always return to the work of those who use photography in a more traditional sense. Contemporary photographers like Vanessa Winship and Dana Lixenberg.”
Alys’ first photographic commission was shooting New York for Time Out, and since then it’s been a career of balancing commercial jobs and passion projects. Rather than resenting commercial work for infringing on her artistic inclinations, Alys says that she appreciates the good habits that deadlines and managing expectations instills, and tries to carry it across to her personal work. “Creative problem solving, in-depth research and re-thinking ideas, they all benefit long-term, personal projects,” she says. “For years I was worried about losing out on commissions if I spent too much time on personal work, but now I realise that I feel most fulfilled when I’m working on long-term, self-initiated projects.”
The most recent of the personal series, the award-winning Ex-Voto, is a brooding, beautiful set of images that Alys shot of modern-day pilgrims in Europe. “We live such busy lives that I was drawn the peace and the space that people carve out to just sit and think,” Alys says of the process. “Also, as a non-believer I wanted to try and understand what faith meant to these people.” The images were shot at Christian pilgrimage sites in Lourdes, France, Ballyvourney, Ireland, and Grabarka in Poland. “Ex-Votos are offerings left by pilgrims as signs of gratitude and devotion,” Alys explains. “They take many forms including prayer notes hidden in rocks, crosses etched into stone, ribbons wrapped around twigs, and discarded crutches.” She goes on to explain that the intention was to “capture the power of these deeply spiritual locations, but also the mystery and silence of religious sites that seem unchanged by time.”
Alys tells me that the Photographer of the Year accolade has given her life-long indulgence of intuition validation. “I think as artists we often doubt ourselves,” she says. “Getting this type of recognition and exposure is invaluable. My work begins from an instinct, a question, a puzzle, or a fascination. To have these interests recognised as resonating beyond my own curious impulses, to see what has been a photographic pilgrimage for me have meaning for others, gives me motivation to keep making work I believe in.”
As a continuation of her work, Ex-Voto will be turned into a book later in the year, and Alys is in talks with galleries and curators around the globe about exhibitions. As for her next project, Alys says that her recent studies have inspired her to explore the literary side of her work, harkening back to her book-filled childhood. “I recently completed an MA in Anthropology,” she tells me. “I’d like to incorporate more writing into my work combining imagery with ethnographic enquiry and research.” Judging by Alys’ thought-provoking, unique work up until this point, you’d be well advised to watch this space.