I was rather struck yesterday, listening to the latest Small Voice interview, by the direct relevance of Alys Tomlinson’s story for anyone tackling a body of work. Never having time for personal projects because of the need to make a living through corporate work, Tomlinson had the nagging feeling that she’d never feel truly fulfilled if she didn’t make space for this in her life. Eventually, it got to a ‘now or never’ stage and she pursued what became Ex-Voto, leading to her winning the Sony World Photographer of the Year Award in 2018.
- Synthesis of research and image-making. Tomlinson took her contextual studies really seriously to the point where she enrolled for an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage at SOAS. Pictures of her notebook/research can be seen here.
Using anthropological experience gained during my MA, I became interested in the markers left behind at pilgrimage sites. Placed anonymously and often hidden from view, ‘Ex-Voto’ are offerings left by pilgrims as signs of gratitude, hope and devotion, creating a tangible narrative between faith, person and the landscape. 
- Taking time to let the project emerge. She travelled to Lourdes many times but was mostly dissatisfied with the resulting photographs. Repeated visits over several years meant she developed relationships which helped open doors and, more importantly, she was able to find the quiet and contemplative spaces that allowed her to find the ethereal look she had hoped to achieve.
- Collaboration. Tomlinson worked with an assistant, Marie-Cecile Embleton, photographer and film-maker, who became a close friend and they often conducted visual research together.
- Experimentation. The development of the work can be seen on the artist’s website. Initial images look much more editorial/documentary essay, shot in colour and with an emphasis on the unique aspects of the place. The award-winning final work was shot with large format black and white, slowing the process down. The emphasis shifted to more formal portraiture and capturing the devotions and markers left by the pilgrims. These later images show the spiritual resilience of the subjects and connection to the landscape.
I think in the beginning I was trying too many different things and I needed to just pare it right down, because it’s the simplicity and stillness that make the series work. 
- Taking risks. Tomlinson talks about getting a lucky break with Time Out New York when she was just starting out with her career but it was actually the result of sending some street photography images to the publisher on spec. With Lourdes, she booked a personal trip there, based on a hunch, to explore. Being independent and a bit fearless helps but she acknowledges it can be lonely and difficult at times.
You have to be pretty ballsy, and full of self belief… 
- Ethics. Tomlinson’s sensitivity towards her subjects – despite not being a person of faith herself – is clearly evident. There is no indication of ‘othering’ and Tomlinson has carefully avoided any visual sensationalism. Caroline Malloy writes of this project: “We can understand practices of the sacred to happen outside of the normalcy of everyday life, visible in the liminal spaces of rituals, such as practices of pilgrimage. There is a delicate balance to be realised when documenting such activity and robust arguments for and against depicting these practices from an insider/outsider perspective.” 
- Artist’s website: http://www.alystomlinson.co.uk/
- https://hackelbury.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Alys-Tomlinson-BW-Magazine-April-2019.pdf (accessed 17.2.20)
- https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/19/uks-alys-tomlinson-named-photographer-of-year-at-sony-awards (accessed 17.2.20)
- http://www.1000wordsmag.com/alys-tomlinson/ (accessed 17.2.20)