In Sri Lanka, the relentless war fought between the government army and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) lasted for more than thirty years and claimed more than 90,000 lives. It forced millions of Tamils to flee the island and take refuge in western countries, and in particular France: 70,000 of them live in Paris and its suburbs alone. Born to a Sri Lankan Tamil father and a French mother, photographer Vasantha Yogananthan’s story is linked to his parents, while remaining strongly separated. He was born and educated in France and never had any difficulty in ‘intergrating’ with diasporic Sri Lankan culture. He did however feel the need to understand the history of Sri Lanka where civilians lost their lives on a daily basis- victims of a conflict that seemed never ending. Just after the end of the civil war in May 2009, Vasantha Yogananthan started capturing the Tamil diaspora- in Paris and its suburbs- through his lenses.
First of all, he immersed himself in an area of northern Paris called La Chapelle, the anchor point of the Tamil community in Paris. After that he started progressively attending festivals and meetings held mainly in the suburbs. In his efforts to feel one with the migrant Sri Lankan community, he made a conscious decision to leave out all scenes of daily life from his work in order to concentrate on the process of metaphorical representation of conflict. Through the remembrance services, religious ceremonies, theatrical re-enactions which take place on a weekly basis in Paris and its suburbs, the community keeps up a permanent duty to remember its ties with the native land. By photographing these stagings, he tried to show how the Tamil diaspora, steeped in its own iconography of conflict, reproduces and transforms the myths and images of its own history.
Far from the island, he felt the Tamil diaspora seemed to be frozen in its own time and space: its members always reenact history, get together in the present to search for a future in a country that they no longer live in, but that, more than ever before, constitutes their identity.
He photographed these actors, extras, passersby and wished to document the universal search for identity of a community in exile, marked by war.
Interview with Vasantha Yogananthan by Sameena Siddiqui
After the end of civil war in May 2009, Sri Lanka largely remains a polarised and fragmented society. In such a scenario, how does the diasporic Sri Lankan community envision a cohesive Sri Lankan identity?
The question of a reunified Sri Lanka remains a highly controversial issue to debate within the French Lankan community. In May 2009, the diaspora called for an independent investigation led by the UN to establish what happened during the last months of war – that claimed more than 30,000 civilians. In order to achieve this, the community is conducting an intense lobbying at the European parliament in Brussels that remains unsuccessful so far. Their main request is that the UN acknowledges that the Tamil population has been a victim of genocide. Politicians, researchers and people following the situation in Sri Lanka know that this won’t happen. As a result, the Tamil diaspora can’t see how they can live in peace with the Sinhalese population. They reckon a reconciliation process has to be initiated by the Sri Lankan government along with UN to give a chance to the construction of a cohesive Sri Lankan identity. “Justice”, for them, is the first step of this reconciliation process.
Can you tell us about ‘Theatre of Wars’? For the diasporic Sri Lankan community in La Chapelle, how does it create a space for ‘negotiation of remembrance’?
What I call ‘Theater of Wars’ is a very singular way of keeping the duty of remembrance alive. Each month, the community gathers to honour the victims of war by doing theatrical re-enactions of the conflict. Kids play leading roles: from Sinhalese soldiers to wounded Tamils. The soundtrack is composed of various weapons’ noises and civilians’ cries of pain. If one is not aware of this, one can almost have the feel that families go there as if it were a traditional Sunday’s cinema outing. These events take place in closed community centers. As soon as you enter the place you forget it is Paris – or anywhere else for that matter –. Far from the island, the Tamil diaspora seems to be frozen in its own time and space: its members get together in the present to search for a future in a country that they no longer live in, but that, more than ever before, constitutes their identity.
How do you think your photographic documentation of these theatrical stagings (or the process of conflict representation) help in critical understanding of the reactions to the past political events and lived experiences of the community in exile?
My photographic essay tries to raise questions about post-war trauma. The fact that the Tamil community has been exiled from its motherland for so long is recognized as a key factor in the way they have reacted to the end of the war. They are torn between feelings of guilt, anger and hope. They do not really ‘know’ Sri Lanka anymore and – apart from sending money to their relatives – they don’t have much power to interfere with the current political situation. This is perhaps the reason why they find the duty of remembrance so appealing. This duty of remembrance might be their last resort to show the world that they are united with their people. Maybe parents are doing this so their children won’t forget where they come from and ‘who they are’. I should add that what I am fascinated by is the critical understanding of the second generation of immigrants – that were born in France – which is solely built on broadcasted information, whether pro-government or pro-LTTE. These kids are playing the history of a country they have never visited. How does it affect their vision of History – and by extension of the future?
How does the photographic series ‘Inner Islands’, pushes the conventions of traditional documentary photography and negotiate the limits of representation?
The series ‘Inner Islands’ plays with a link between past and present. The major challenge I was faced, when I started to photograph the Tamil community in Paris was the representation of the conflict and its consequences on the lives of thousands of exiled people. When I found the “War theaters” I immediately knew that I did not need any extra situations to tell the story I wanted to tell. These theaters were exactly the melting point between past and present, between real and fiction. Steeped in its own iconography of conflict, the Tamil community reproduces and transforms the myths and images of its own history. By photographing re-enactions of the war, I too add an extra layer: representing the representation itself.
By creating images of the ‘other’ i.e. the lived experiences of the diasporic community in La Chapelle, do you think ‘Inner Islands’ in a way creates an alternate visibility of the mainstream imagery of conflicts?
These photographs try to represent the mixed feelings of a community submerged by the duty of remembrance. They talk about the Sri Lankan civil war avoiding the usual ‘clichés’ as, for example, protest pictures. Each photograph that represents someone, never falls into ‘drama’ i.e people crying – even if people do cry during these events. Instead, they depict people that seem lost in their thoughts, in a universal search for identity.