Camera in the Sky: Sri Lanka from Above

Sri Lanka: The Island from Above  by Dominic Sansoni, Sebastian Posingis & Richard Simon …. Published by Barefoot Books

For years, Dominic Sansoni dreamed of photographing Sri Lanka from the air. Having extensively documented the island’s multicultural populace, its urban and rural beauties, its architecture, its culture and festivals and even its wars, he had come to be acknowledged as the most successful and artistically committed Sri Lankan photographer of his generation; yet he found himself still unable to attain the longed-for aerial perspective.

Dominic    Sebastien

It wasn’t his fault. The arc of Dominic’s career, which began in the early Eighties, had coincided almost exactly with that of Sri Lanka’s long, bloody civil conflict. Due to the ‘prevailing security situation’, official restrictions were placed on domestic civil aviation during this time. Aerial photography, which could provide important information to the enemy, was banned outright. Now and then, in the course of some assignment that involved internal air travel, Dominic would sneak a picture through the window of whatever aircraft he happened to be flying in, but these images rarely saw publication.

After the war ended in 2009, the irksome restrictions were lifted. Yet even now the dream remained unrealized. Until the recent advent of remote-controlled camera-carrying drones, aerial photography was prohibitively costly: planes and helicopters don’t come cheap. It was also rather dangerous: many of the images Dominic and his colleague Sebastian Posingis wanted to capture would involve close passes at low altitude, often in remote parts of the country. Just any old pilot wouldn’t do; they needed someone with the flying hours, the skill and the nerve for the job.

Five years passed. They were productive years for the two photographers. Dominic consolidated his now well-established reputation; Sebastian built his own with a series of successful international assignments and books such as Uniquely Maldives, In Search of Bawa and The New Sri Lankan House. Still the skies obstinately refused to open.

Then Access International came calling. The business group, one of the country’s largest, was about to celebrate its silver jubilee and wanted to commemorate the occasion in an original and meaningful way. Access approached Dominic with an open brief; his response was to propose a book of aerial photographs of Sri Lanka, taken by himself and Sebastian. Despite the enormous cost and the difficulties involved, Access immediately embraced the idea, undertaking to provide all the necessary inputs – including a helicopter and combat-seasoned aircrew from the Sri Lanka Air Force – and coordinate most of the operation into the bargain.

In early 2013, the shooting began. Dominic and Sebastian, with writer Richard Simon in tow, flew all over Sri Lanka, first tracing the coastline, then making a series of flights across the interior of the island. Over several weeks, they captured tens of thousands of images, at heights ranging from 1,000ft to near ground level. The subjects were towns and wildernesses, paddy fields and tea plantations, people at work and play, domestic animals and wildlife; mountains, forests, waterfalls, rivers, beaches and offshore islands; dagobas, temples, mosques and churches; in short, the whole awe-inspiring pageant of Sri Lankan beauty.

Opulently printed and bound, Sri Lanka: The Island from Above was launched during the Access International jubilee celebrations and made its way into the hands of a select few – national leaders, foreign diplomats, valued customers and business associates, senior executives of the group itself. And with this few it has, for the most part, remained: a work of art inaccessible to the general public.

Realizing this, and understanding that such important work deserved a wider viewership, Access generously allowed the rights to the images and text to remain with their creators. This made it possible, after a suitable lapse of time, to produce a new edition of The Island From Above, one that could be affordably distributed and sold to the public.

Last year, following the appearance of another Sansoni-Posingis-Simon book, Ceylon Tea: The Trade that Made A Nation, the trio began work on a new, expanded edition of The Island from Above. The brief was not to replicate the Access book in cheaper form, but to start afresh with a revised, slightly different selection of photographs. Now, for the first time, it became possible for some of Dominic and Sebastian’s older, ‘stolen’ aerial images to appear in the light of day; added to the trove of photos from the Access shoot, they expand the geographical and aesthetic range of the book. This second edition also features a slightly larger format, as well as a smart, eye-catching dust-jacket and a new preface by Richard Simon.

The revised edition of Sri Lanka: The Island from Above, will be launched on 25 November and will appear in bookshops shortly thereafter. With this, a unique and important addition to the corpus of Sri Lankan photography finally makes its public debut.

Dominic Sansoni speaking at a Photographic ‘Fest’ in Mumbai

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