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DateLine Sunday, 19 August 2007

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Magnificent Obsession

'Unstill' story of a still photographer:

One day in May, not so long ago, a man who had, throughout his life, tinkered with beauty through the eye of a camera, sat with a Writer in his home in Nugegoda , sipping a steaming cup of coffee.

"Don't reveal my name till you reach the end of the article" he told the Writer, looking almost like a real life James Bond, but with a camera. "So much has already been written about me..." he turned his lips down, opened his palms to the skies and declared a prophesy of doom, "no one will read any further if they get to know who I am".


Zoological Gardens, Dehiwela

Thus began one of the most challenging articles I have ever written.... Are you still with me even though you may have already guessed who the protagonist of my story is? If the answer is yes and if you decide to read on, you are in for a pleasant surprise.

For, today the Legend whose life story you may think you know from the opening reel to this very moment, will reveal a totally different set of snapshots which have hitherto been kept under lock and key.

Without preamble he focuses straight onto what he calls the "other" side of his life. January 5, 1948 - the day he was fired from his post at Donald's Maradana, thanks to a youthful caprice.

Having strolled the streets of Colombo searching for another job at about eleven in the morning he had walked into Studio Chitra, a subsidiary of the Lake House and boldly inquired from the manager "Sir, is there a vacancy here for me?" After scrutinizing him from head to toe the Manager had asked him to come at two in the afternoon for an interview.


Ripples

When he had returned at the appointed time he was asked to take a portrait picture. "It was all too easy, because they used the same camera the same equipment used at Donald's." he says with a grin. So, it was not a surprise when the Manager asked him to start work immediately. He remembers he was paid Rs. 100 a month with an additional war allowance of Rs.82.50.

When Chitra Studio was closed down, he was transferred to the editorial staff of the Lake House. This meant starting his career anew, for till then he had been a commercial photographer engaged mainly in taking wedding photos or portrait pictures.

On his first day at Lake House he had walked up to the Editor of Dinamina and asked him, "Sir, I do not know anything about taking news photos. Can I go to the library and study what kind of pictures news photos are?" " O.K carry on ", said the Editor.

He had spent a week in the library studying the pictures in newspapers and magazines and formed a rough idea of what is expected from him as a photo-journalist. He recalls that most of the editors he had worked with at ANCL had wanted to fill the paper with descriptive pictures rather than with long narratives. They had believed in letting the pictures do the talking.


Fisherman at Muthurajawela

If the pictures had not satisfied the Editor he would shout at you till you felt like jumping into the Beira Lake, for good. But the next minute you will be called back into the Editors office and given Rs. 25 to have a beer and go home.

When you brought a marvellous picture though, the treatment would be entirely different. "Superb. Out of this world" the Editor will thump you on the back. This time you will be given Rs. 100 and be told to have a couple of beers before you go home.

Possessing an unquenchable thirst to push himself to his next creative level, he had, during his thirty-five years of service at Lake House, constantly raised the bar not only for himself but for his counterparts as well. He remembers how he had racked his brains when he was asked to bring a photo to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Daily News and suddenly hit on a brain-wave.

He had gone to the SSC grounds arranged the scoreboard to stand at 60 and made one of the boys who had been cutting the grass to stand holding the Daily News in his hands in front of an unbroken wicket.

Another memorable event was taking the pictures of the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana. Having practised by taking pictures off the TV screen at home he had gone to the satellite station at Padukka with two cameras and twenty colour rolls and covered the wedding from A to Z.

When he sent the negatives to the Chairman, R. Bodhinagoda, the Chairman himself had taken them to Miller's Colour lab ensuring that no other newspaper will get hold of the photos. The pictures in the Daily News the next day would surely go down as the scoop of the 20th century.

Today, as Sri Lanka celebrates World Photography Day for the first time in the history of the country's photo industry, he says "Photographers are the 'enlighteners' of this world. We should not be dismissed simply as 'Photo Karayas' . The value of our profession has yet to be understood. For we are the stimulating force that opens the eyes of our fellow men".

Going through the 125 black and white pictures of his book ' Learn to See' , spanning a career of more than fifty years, it is impossible not to gasp with wonder at the depth and dimension they possess. By the time you reach the last picture you know Sri Lankan history, you have travelled to far off places and taken wings to see aerial pictures of Colombo in 1954.

As the interview comes to an end I realize I have been listening to a veteran photographer whose photos speak of the ethics and responsibility of photo-journalism, of how a camera could be moulded into a sensitive and intelligent observer to bring forth pictures which make you laugh, cry, and above all think. He has endowed all his pictures with something rarely captured through a lens - substance.

And now it is time to reveal his name - he is Kala Bhushana L. E. Samararatne.n

[email protected]

****

Today is World Photography Day

For the first time in Sri Lanka, World Photography Day, which falls today (August 19, 2007) will be celebrated by the National Association of Photographers-Sri Lanka (NAPSL), at the Auditorium of the Mahaweli Centre.

According to Wimal Amaratunge, Executive Director, NAPSL, this day, August 19, was especially chosen as this was the day the first official and scientific announcement on the process of photography was made in 1839 before the members of the Academies des Science and Beaux Arts in France by L. J. M. Daguerre.

The NAPSL plans to celebrate the event every year beginning from 2007, with the aim of recognizing veterans in the field the pioneers of photography in Sri Lanka.

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