Q&A: Alys Tomlinson — Ex Voto


Have you recently been living by any life philosophy? I’m not religious at all, which might be surprising given that I spent five years of my life documenting Christian pilgrimage sites, but I have always believed in Quaker values such as equality, peace, integrity, and community. More recently, my life philosophy has been to not check the news every few minutes. What will baffle future generations about our day and age? The way we destroyed our planet. Are you aware of any conspiracies? I don’t tend to believe in conspiracy theories, but I have a healthy mistrust of many politicians and big corporations. What is it that interests you about photography? The immediacy of photography and its ability to reveal a way of looking that comes only from you. I like that there’s always the possibility of taking a great picture and capturing a powerful moment, and that can be done in a fraction of a second. What is the worst thing about city life? Anonymity – but that can also be the best thing. What part of the planet would you like to explore? Antarctica. What do you think is the most plausible of the supernatural? Spirits, although I wouldn’t say I believe in ghosts. If you had to align yourself with a leader in history, who would it be? Emmeline Pankhurst or Nye Bevan. Pick a field of science to be an expert within. Biology, specialising in evolution. What moment have you most wished you’d had a camera when you hadn’t? My Mum and Dad’s wedding.

Choose a job you would be willing to do for free on the side. I’d like to work with the elderly again. I used to volunteer for an organisation in London and we’d put on film nights for old people in the local area. We’d all sit together with cups of tea watching the film and then have a discussion afterward. Describe the most important photo you’ve seen. That’s a near-impossible question, but if we’re talking personal importance, then a Diane Arbus show I saw in London at the V&A about 15 years ago had a big impact on the way I think about photography. How often do you take other people’s advice? I’m quite open to hearing it, but I’m not sure I’m that good at acting on it…I’ve always been a pretty determined and single-minded person. Describe a personal hell. Self-isolation – although I’m getting much better at it now. I’m getting in a lot of practice. Which living person do you most admire? I really admire everything Bernie Sanders stands for – I’m sad he’s no longer in the running for President. On what occasion do you lie? To avoid hurting someone’s feelings. What was the last crime you witnessed? Tories winning the last general election in the UK. What is the best way to educate yourself? Read, think, stay curious. What is the next book you want to read? I always have a big pile to get through. Currently on my list: Saul Bellow’s ‘Seize the Day’ and Joan Didion’s ‘Play It As It Lays.’

Ultimate camera? A lightweight but robust, 10×8 film camera (although I’m aware that’s an oxymoron!). Most used camera? At the moment, it’s my 5×4 Chamonix. For commercial jobs, I use a Canon 5d mark iii. What object do you want? I would love a garden (does that count as an object?) with a simple home office and a netball post. What object do you need? A loaf tin, so I can make banana bread during lockdown. How would you explain the internet to someone from the 1950’s? A thing that you can’t easily describe, but that transits a lot of information about everything you could ever want to know. A technological encyclopedia that also opens doors of communication. Are you satisfied with your level of physical strength? I just did a 3.5 minute plank, but I’m not going to win any bodybuilding competitions. I’ve built up a decent amount of strength from lugging around camera equipment and a tripod most of my life. Describe a cheap thrill. A 99 flake ice-cream. Pick a historic moment from the last hundred years to bring a camera to. The civil rights movement in America. Are impulses more important than consequences? In making work, then yes. If I wasn’t impulsive, I would probably never have started most of my projects. Which talent would you most like to have? An amazing singing voice. What is your plan for the next 24 hours? Read, work on developing a Professional Photography Development course, make macaroni cheese, watch an episode of The Messiah, sleep.

Alys Tomlinson / Biography

Born 1975, Brighton, UK
Lives and works in London, UK
Represented by HackelBury Fine Art, UK

Alys Tomlinson studied English Literature and Communications at the University of Leeds and photography at Central Saint Martins. She recently completed an MA (Distinction) in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage at SOAS, University of London. Alys is most interested in the relationship between people and place, working on long-term projects that explore themes of environment, identity and belonging.

Alys was named Sony World Photographer of the Year 2018 for her series ‘Ex-Voto’, a five-year project documenting Christian pilgrimage sites in Europe. ‘Ex-Voto’ was published by GOST Books in 2019. Alys’s work has been included in over twenty international exhibitions, most recently at Somerset House, Rencontres d’Arles and National Portrait Gallery, London. In summer 2019, Alys was awarded the Prix du Public for her solo exhibition ‘The Faithful’, shown as part of the Discovery Award at the Rencontres d’Arles festival.

You can hear Alys discuss her work and practice on a recent episode of photography podcast ‘A Small Voice’.

All images ‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Ex-Voto’ (2016-2018)

To see more of Alys Tomlinson’s work visit her — Website / Instagram. 

Ex-Voto is available now through Gost Books and can be purchased here — gostbooks.com

Project statement

A handwritten note carefully folded and tucked out of sight in the crevice of a rock, crosses scratched onto stone, and piles of twigs carefully wrapped in ribbon. Each of these is an offering of religious devotion, known as an ‘ex-voto’ and left anonymously at sacred Christian sites by pilgrims worldwide. Placed in the landscape as a sign of a commitment made and a hope waiting to be met, they turn the natural features of the land into vessels for human stories of anticipation and expectation.

Taken at the pilgrimage sites of Lourdes (France), Ballyvourney (Ireland) and Grabarka (Poland), the project images include formal portraiture of pilgrims, large format landscapes of the sites and surrounding areas and detailed still-life shots of the ex-voto objects and markers left behind. The images carry a suggestive stillness and reflect the mysterious, timeless quality characteristic of these sites of great spiritual contemplation.