Last week, Sony announced the overall winner of the 2018 World Photo Awards. British photographer Alys Tomlinson was awarded the €25,000 prize for her project documenting pilgrimage sites in France, Ireland and Poland.
Tomlinson works as a commercial photographer but also undertakes personal projects that are grounded in her academic studies. She recently completed a master's degree in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism, and Pilgrimage at London's prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies, writing her dissertation about Lourdes.
Tomlinson's winning project, Ex-Voto, is a study of pilgrimage sites, blending portraits, landscape, and still-life images of found objects. Pilgrims often leave small items or traces of their presence — the ex-voto of the project's title — such as ribbons, prayer notes, and even asthma inhalers, or crosses carved into rock. These offerings are items of gratitude and devotion and are left anonymously, often tucked out of sight, and it's only after spending some time at these pilgrimage locations that they become visible.
Tomlinson has been visiting the religious locations in order to conduct research for more than five years, but it was only two years ago that she felt she had finally discovered the right approach. "Sometimes you start a project without really knowing what it's going to be like," she told Fstoppers. "And with long-term projects, sometimes you have to get it wrong in order to figure out how to make it work," she explained, also describing a need to feel informed about what she's researching before being able to document it. Effectively, over the five years of this ongoing project, there were three years of visits that produced no published images but were absolutely essential to the process.
Despite shooting on medium format film during these early research visits, Tomlinson felt that she lacked the immersion and methodology necessary to convey what she was encountering. It wasn't until she returned with her large format camera — complete with tripod and hood — that she was able to properly explore her understanding of the relationship between the landscape, the people and the physical traces of presence and devotion. "You've got to have the story there and the vision, and sometimes the camera has to match the work," she explained. "The slow, considered approach of large format reflected the quietness of the places that I visited."
Shooting 5x4 inch black and white plates meant producing as few as 30 images over the course of a week-long visit, and for Tomlinson, this was a welcome change to the thousands of digital images she finds herself editing after a day of shooting commercial work. The larger format changed her relationship with the people and the location, prompting her to speak to people differently and work even harder to build relationships, and also changing the pilgrims' perception of her. "The larger format resulted in a deeper engagement with my subjects," Tomlinson explained.
Working in black and white was also a very deliberate choice, allowing Tomlinson to convey a sense of the timelessness of these locations and rituals, practices tied to these religious sites that have been going on for hundreds of years. There's also a mystery and atmosphere to these places that Tomlinson felt was missing from her early color photographs, but feels present when conveyed in monochrome.
Tomlinson was quick to thank the panel of judges for choosing her project, and also to Sony and the team at SWPA for their support. Given that the majority of the finalists were male (presumably reflective of the balance of those submitting entries), Tomlinson is aware that a female winner is another important step in photography's progress towards gender parity. "The industry is still pretty male-dominated," Tomlinson observed, "especially in commercial photography, and most of those at the top in advertising are still men. I meet a lot of super-talented female photographers who make great work, but aren't very well known as they don't have the confidence to promote themselves. I think this is changing, but very slowly."
You can see Tomlinson's project and those of all finalists at the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition at Somerset House in London until 6th May. For more of Tomlinson's work, you can view her winning submission, visit her website, find her on Twitter, or follow her on Instagram.
All images courtesy of Alys Tomlinson.