"From Lourdes to lesser-known Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland and Poland, Alys’ Ex-Voto project highlights the traces that devotees leave on the sacred landscapes they traverse."
Unseen Platform: Could you outline the premise of the Ex-Voto project for us?
Alys Tomlinson: I was originally inspired by a Jessica Hausner film called Lourdes, and my project reflects how I felt at various different pilgrimage sites as a non-believer – intrigued, connected, calm, spiritual, but also an outsider at times. There is a certain mysticism and timelessness that I wanted to capture. At first the project focused solely on Lourdes, but as I researched other Christian pilgrimage sites I began to see thematic connections in the natural landscape (forests, stones and water) between these sites.
A few of your projects revolve around religion, belief systems, or more broadly, the notion of community. Could you elaborate on this?
I’m drawn to people with strong belief systems and those who don’t quite “fit in” to mainstream society. A lot of my work is driven by a curiosity to discover more, which is why – as an atheist – I wanted to explore the meaning of faith. Devotion is a common theme in my work, covering everything from intentional communities to music fans queuing at concerts for hours.
How would you describe your visual approach in your own words?
I suppose my style is always evolving, but with Ex-Voto the whole process needed slowing down and the subject matter demanded a more precise and considered approach. I think there is often a stillness to my images – they are carefully composed rather than spontaneous snapshots. I don’t always have a clear idea of how a story will develop. I was shooting Ex-Votofor three years before I discovered a strong visual style.
What is your experience of trying to balance a career comprising both personal projects and editorial work?
It’s hard – I feel like it’s a constant struggle. Nearly all my personal work is shot on film, whilst my commissioned work is mostly digital, but they do sometimes feed into one another, and great ideas can come unexpectedly from commissioned work. My early commissions for Time Out, shooting their travel guides across Europe and North America, were a great learning curve. I had to be organised, disciplined, independent and adventurous.
How do you plan to follow up the Ex-Voto project?
I have begun work on a short film called Vera – Vera was the main nun in my Ex-Voto project. I stayed with her in her convent in Belarus, which was fascinating. I was given access to a very hidden, Orthodox world. Film is a new challenge for me, but I have a very clear idea of how I want the film to look and feel.