Sri Lanka

Photography Exhibition Challenges Stereotypes of Women in Sri Lanka

“Women – Out of The Frame,” a Sri Lankan photography project, set out to change the portrayals of women here.

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Photography Exhibition Challenges Stereotypes of Women in Sri Lanka

Liz Fernando used Photoshop to merge images of different women.

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COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – “The way women are being visually portrayed in Sri Lanka is something that has to be questioned,” says Liz Fernando, a photographer and visual artist in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

Fernando sees two common trends in the visual portrayals of women.

“Either the woman is objectified, or she is victimized,” she says. “There is nothing in between.”

Fernando was one of 45 photographers who participated in “Women – Out of The Frame,” a photography project that ran through July 14 in Colombo.

“I think this exhibition is an important step,” she says. “Maybe it’s just the trigger where people start to reflect about this.”

Fernando’s submission to the exhibition was an abstract visual creation that merged two women – a young Indian woman from an indigenous tribe in the Indian state of Orissa and a young Indian woman living in London, England. Using Photoshop photo-editing software, she integrated the portraits to create one image.

The image aims to redefine the notion of cultural identity, Fernando says. She titled the entry, “In between, we are searching for the tribe, where we belong.”

“All I am saying in this photograph is that sometimes we are judged by the way we look, the way we talk, the way we walk,” Fernando says.

Through her art, she is questioning how society sees women, she says.

“I just want to raise this question and leave it open,” she says. “I myself am trying to find the answer to it!”

Sri Lankan photographer, educator and curator Menika van der Poorten conceived and directed “Women – Out of The Frame” with support from the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. The exhibition took place from July 5 through July 10, with workshops through July 14.

The open call for submissions drew more than 500 photographs. A panel selected 80 photographs for exhibition. The photographs were the works of 45 photographers – both professionals and amateurs – from across the country, including foreign nationals living here.

For van der Poorten, frustration with violence inspired her idea for the exhibition. Sri Lanka’s nearly three-decade civil war ended in 2009.

“There is a growing trend of violence against women,” she says. “We have become benumbed to the violence, perhaps having gone through it for over 30 years. As a society, we shrug our shoulders and go on.”

The photography project sought images that went beyond the stereotypical portrayal of women in mainstream Sri Lankan media. The curators introduced the open-ended concept to the photography community through presubmission presentations at special meetings in the cities of Colombo, Galle and Kandy.

“The concept of ‘Women – Out of The Frame’ was how you, the photographer, would look at it,” van der Poorten says. “But initially, a lot of photographers thought I was referring to women who were breaking boundaries – sexually and socially – so we had to keep clarifying the concept.”

Two well-known creative personalities in Colombo joined van der Poorten on the selection panel. Together, they examined different factors to select the photos to exhibit.

“The conceptual quality and where it was coming from were very important factors,” van der Poorten says.

The panel did not emphasize technical perfection or image resolution. To encourage diverse photography from across the country, it focused instead on the photographers’ locales and the viewpoints they were trying to communicate, van der Poorten says. The final photographs were by full-time professionals and photojournalists as well as high school and university students, bank officials, medical doctors, teachers and even a village official.

The exhibition featured two photographs by D.M.D. Kanchana Sumali, a 25-year-old undergraduate.

“I’m an absolute beginner,” she says. “I’ve never done photography. I don’t have a professional camera, and I use a point-and-shoot camera. This is such an encouragement for beginners like me to be included in something like this.”

Free to the public, the project included the exhibition as well as workshops. The workshops, which took place during the first two weekends of July, aimed to support the development of conceptual and technical photography skills and included eminent local and international photographers and photojournalists.

Pradeep Kirindage, an emerging visual artist who had two photos in the exhibit, also took part in the workshops.

“This project has opened a window to a new discussion,” he says. “Usually, there is no discussion that continues after the exhibition. You just go and see photographs of women and leave. But here, I saw many different ways of depicting women. There are conversations happening already, and these will continue.”

As a young visual artist who is beginning to exhibit his photography, Kirindage says he appreciates that “Women – Out of The Frame” drew submissions from both men and women.

“They say that women are treated badly by men,” he says, “and I think the solution is to get men involved in the discussion. And this project is a good example.”

But van der Poorten says that this project is simply a start. For her, there is a long way to go to develop the nation’s photography culture.

“When you look at the photography in the region – across India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan – their photography is at a whole different level,” she says, “much more edgy, much more interesting. The field of photography in Sri Lanka is not yet developed.”

Planning for the future of photography in Sri Lanka, she says that she would like to see more residencies and workshops with international photographers, as well as a small photography festival.

“The ‘Women – Out of The Frame’ project, in my mind, is just a precursor to something bigger,” she says.