Civil War, Cowabunga!
For the last three years or so, photographer Yannik Willing has been traveling back and forth between Hamburg and Sri Lanka, documenting the latter's transformation from war-ridden hellhole into a luxury holiday destination for a project called Before Tomorrow. The country only recently emerged from a bloody civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009 and claimed up to 100,000 lives. Twenty-fucking-six years of misery.
That conflict tidbit is about as far as my knowledge of Sri Lankan history goes, so to save myself the internal embarrassment of being totally ignorant, I thought I'd give Yannick a call in the hope he'd make me less of an idiot. Also, his pictures are beautiful, so I asked him about them.
VICE: Hey there Yannik. How are you?
Yannik Willing: I’m okay, although I've spent the whole day hanging my own photographs in my local printer’s office.
It was a deal; he said he’d give me a better price if I gave him some pictures from Before Tomorrow. But he ended up asking for 20 pictures, which is pretty much the main body of the project, so now I’m just spending my days framing and hanging them. I have to go back tomorrow – it’s just too much work.
Well that's kind of you. Wanna tell me a little about how the idea came about?
I’ve got this friend from uni whose parents live in Sri-Lanka; his dad is from there and his mum is German. So, in my second semester as a photography student back in 2009, while the civil war was still ongoing, I visited with him. It was the first time I’d travelled so far and I had my camera with me so I took loads of pictures, which I hated because they were just so tourist-y.
I’m surprised you were roaming around as a tourist, photographing a country in the middle of a civil war.
Well, the interesting thing with Sri Lanka is that the war lasted for about 30 years and, all that while, the west coast, where I was, was relatively safe. You see, the whole thing started because this militant group, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), decided one day that they’d create their own state in the eastern and northern parts. The west had its fair share of terrorist attacks, too, affecting the tourism and everything. People would always tell you to not even think of going to the capital, but the village where we stayed was pretty safe.
So, then you found out the war was over?
Yeah. Basically, I got back home and, one month later, I hear that the civil war is over and the Tamil Tigers defeated. It was a bloody ending, too. It’s impossible to actually count the losses, but I think I heard that the number of deaths at the battle of Kilinochchi could even be around ten to 15 thousand.
Wow. Is that when you decided to go back and focus on the project?
Not really. The idea came a couple years later. I kept on monitoring the situation and, at some point in 2010, I came across these crazy figures for tourism in the country, saying it was on the rise. I was looking for a theme to start a course project on and war and crisis were subjects that interested me, so I decided to go back to Sri Lanka and look at the country in that state of flux.
Was tourism the way the numbers had described it?
Not exactly. Despite the booming numbers I read, what I found was that kind of silence – the calm before the storm, if you will. Like, everyone was talking about all this tourism that was gonna come and making plans to open new businesses, but there weren't really many tourists at all.
I went to one holiday complex on the east coast and the place was completely deserted, kind of like the ghost towns you see in old Westerns. There wasn’t one person in the streets, but everything was perfectly prepared, the guesthouses were pristine and all the restaurants were open. That's why I decided to call the project "Before Tomorrow". It felt really strange there.
How has the tourism thing affected the land and the people?
I think the biggest change you can see is on the east coast, where everything was completely destroyed by the tsunami. The economy after the war was basically down to zero. When it comes to the locals, land grabbing is a major problem, with hotel chains buying up massive pieces of land, and the residents not being allowed to build their own restaurants or businesses within a certain distance of the beach, which is what all the tourists come for.
How have the locals reacted to that?
The thing is, people there don’t like to mention the tsunami or the war at all. Most of them are glad the war is over, so they wouldn’t start protesting against their government, no matter how much it might be discriminating against them. They're both afraid and tired.
Yeah, I can imagine. By the way, I love the picture of the surfer kid with the long, blond hair.
Oh yeah, his name is Parange, he's 21 and part of the Sri Lankan surfing team. He'd just won a surfing competition when I first met him and was talking about going to Sweden – he was so excited. He works in his brother's surf shop and makes a living renting out boards. He's got it pretty good.
Absolutely. What about that button-covered jacket?
Ah, that's Chattu Kuttan, a 92-year-old man who's been working as a doorman at this luxury hotel in Kotte, the capital city. He collects his buttons from all the tourists he meets and each one has its own story.
Cool. Lastly, there's that picture with the screen and satellite dish. What's that about?
That is an open-air cinema.
Ah, cool. That makes sense. Thanks, Yannik.
Before Tomorrow is currently on show at the BredaPhoto international Photo Festival, which takes place Breda, a city in the Netherlands, until the 21st of October.
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