A Story of Hope
On this day ten years ago I had just returned from Sri Lanka on an emergency plane ticket. The emergency was the sudden hospitalisation of my partner who was seven months pregnant with our first child – she was in England while I was in Sri Lanka. I was half way through a two week trip to gather stories and images for a charity exhibition to raise money for the tsunami survivors when I got the phone call from the hospital.
Earlier that day I was in a fishing village called Thotamuna, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, a part of the country that took the full brunt of the deadly boxing day wave of 2004. Driving down the coast from Colombo with a driver who became a friend (and the title of my subsequent exhibition: 7 Days with Gerard) the destruction became more and more severe. When we reached this little village, the devastation was complete – I remember we pulled over and got out of the car. Apart from one or two stubborn walls and a couple of trees, the village was wiped out, only leaving the trace of building footprints – the concrete foundations were buildings used to be.
Gerard and I came across a family, who were now living in a temporary ramshackle wooden shed, constructed on the foundations of their old house. We got talking, and via my driver friend who was also my translator, I heard their personal stories about the day of the tsunami. The thing I remember most about this family was their pride, hospitality and warmth. They were happy to stop what they were doing and make us tea and a hot meal. There wasn’t a hint of desperation in their demeanour – there was a touch of darkness amongst the adults, but the younger children just smiled and played.
One of the young men, a man called Vipula, told us he how he was out at sea in his fishing boat when the wave came. When he got back to the shore the village was gone – washed away. His wife and two young children had been in the house that was no longer there. He never saw them again. He now lived with his brother’s family – who had survived and were now our hosts on that afternoon.
After tea, the extended family agreed to sit for a photographic portrait, which became the basis for the key image in my exhibition. The man who lost everything is the man holding the fish. A few years later, I heard that he had remarried and has children. One day I hope to return to Thotamuna with my daughter who was born a few days after I returned to England.