Picturing War and Peace: Sri Walpola (Photos)


This may look like it’s from a picture postcard, but it was a surprise for me to see a lone fisherman in the Jaffna lagoon where fishing had been totally banned during most of the past two decades. The ceasefire, despite its problems, had added a ray of hope for many people of the Northern & Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.

–photographer Sri Walpola on “Jaffna Fisherman”

This is the episode in which we are on Staten Island! Because a friend recently tipped me off to this:

War & Peace in Sri Lanka Photos by Sri Walpola (Click for the show’s official description. Thanks, Deepti! I am not posting any of the photos here, for obvious reasons … but if you scroll to the end of the post, you’ll see two ways to see some of them much of the rest of the show too. EDITOR’S NOTE/UPDATED 8/11: Sri Walpola and I have been trading messages, and he generously offered to send me pictures to put up here. I have interspersed them with the text that I originally posted, and included his captions.)

Unless you are already lucky enough to live on Staten Island, head to the ferry and take the boat over there. Staten Island has a substantial Sri Lankan community, and indeed, if you find your way into the St. George Library Center (not far from where the ferry docks) and a kindly library staffer thinks you look Sri Lankan and/or confused, he may not even wait for you to ask where the show is before he points you downstairs, toward the reference room. It is possible that this is the warmest reaction you will ever have to being profiled.

If it is the weekend, neighborhood residents will be reading, or perhaps checking e-mail. Comfy chairs and tables are scattered about. Card catalogs, tables. The people leafing through newspapers or working quietly on laptops will not look up to watch you scan what hovers above their heads: the photography of Sri Walpola, a former presidential photographer in Sri Lanka. His pictures of the civil war in Sri Lanka are on display here for the first time in the U.S.

The twentysome pictures on the walls range from heartbreakingly hopeful pictures of the ceasefire to devastating portraits of families separated by fences and displays of military and militant firepower. Some of the pictures are printed in a high gloss; others are matte, so that they appear almost like oils, or old movie stills. A friend describes one as especially painterly–a Jaffna fisherman standing in his boat, the blue of the background dark and pure behind him, the line between water and sky nearly seamless.

(ED 8/11: Obviously that’s the photo up top. Click for more of his pics.)PeaceCandle.jpg

I was reminded of the obstacles to peace when I saw this man trying to protect the flame of a candle he had lit to mark the second anniversary of the ceasefire.

–Sri Walpola on “Peace Candle”


I was shocked, but lucky to be able to capture on camera a soldier ‘arresting’ a Tamil youth after the bombing of the Kolonnawa oil storage tanks in October 1995.

–Sri Walpola on “Into Custody”


This family was separated by barbed wire that underscored the plight of internally displaced Tamil civilians who faced severe hardships in Vavuniya IDP camps at the height of fighting between troops and Tigers.

–Sri Walpola on “Across the Fence”

A female Tamil Tiger cadre buying a Valentine’s day card in another picture prompts this caption: “I was struck by the romance of this Tamil Tiger woman cadre buying a Valentine’s Day card for a loved one. Even the most hardened military fighters can have a romantic streak in them.” Another shot shows an ex-Tamil Tiger child soldier, perhaps twelve, smiling as a UNICEF executive stands near him. A third Tiger photograph depicts the ranks of Black Tigers in a rare public appearance, their faces covered by dark cloth.

On one wall, Jaffna children hang over the balcony rails at their school, waving at a chopper. “Changing times,” the caption notes. “Children wave at a helicopter bringing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to Jaffna in 2002. Instead of waving at the helicopter, the children would have fled to underground bunkers if they heard a helicopter before the ceasefire.” And there is a picture of a library in the library: The Jaffna Public Library, burned by thugs in 1981 and reconstructed years later. Jaffna schoolchildren do their exercises before the white building, clad in white shirts and blue shorts.


Many of the shots were taken in Sri Lanka’s northern region; in two, people (and presumably the photographer) stand perilously near unexploded shells. In another, weapons are purposefully detonated: a blast in Killinochchi makes smoke billow into the air, as the fruits of demining teams’ harvest are destroyed.

This has been a long trip already. You may feel not only contemplative, but also hungry. After you leave the show, walk a short distance to Sanrasa, and eat a plate of koththu roti, or perhaps some chicken curry and an order of four hoppers, an egg bobbling gently on top of the last one. (Thanks for the recommendation, Samip, friend of a friend and whom I have never met but who is reportedly the keeper of cool.) You may be surprised to know some of the other patrons; by the end of the meal, you will also be chatty with your waiter. Plan to take photos of the food, so you can stare at them later. Forget because you are so hungry. Later your friend will probably have one from the other time he was here. (Thanks, Vivek.)

When full, skip the bus–you need to stroll it off!–and walk a bit farther to New Asha. It will take you about a quarter of an hour, but you have to earn a second reward. When you get there, if you remembered to call ahead for your take-out, you can claim your mutton rolls (or veg!) and another order of koththu; if you forgot, dawdle in the adjacent grocery while they cook, and consider the woodapple jam. When the rolls are ready, ask for two plastic bags; if the grease soaks through, your own tote will be not-so-delicately scented for weeks.


Take the ferry back whenever; it runs 24/7, just like the rest of New York. When you go home and Google “Sri Walpola,” you may realize that much of the show is on the Internet. Consider, briefly, feeling foolish. But the boat ride! The quiet, meditative space of the library as an uncanny setting for those photos! The koththu! The food hoarding! A worthwhile journey, after all.

Don’t forget to put your takeout in the freezer. And maybe donate to the NYPL. 🙂

(Second photo also by Vivek, who notes that if you take the Staten Island Ferry and then go to New Asha, you will have passed Liberty on the way to Victory. Yes, I know. Sometimes I wonder if Sri Lankan cuisine’s lack of cheese pains him.)

13 thoughts on “Picturing War and Peace: Sri Walpola (Photos)

  1. Food makes strange bedfellows–let’s hope “pass the roti’s” Vivek doesn’t run into Hindutva rob at New Asha.

  2. I had Sri Lankan food for lunch today at a place without hoppers. And they still call themselves Sri Lankan. Hmmph. Amazing what you can get away with in Colorado. In any case, thanks for sharing, V.V. Sounds like an amazing exhibition.

  3. Striking photos all of them, especially the landmines-related ones. Also, I just ate some brown rice and kung pao tofu, but now I want my own plate of Cheops-shaped kotthu.

  4. abhi, hoping this is not as ‘obnoxious’ as you percieved the last one to be – i only meant to point out the inaccuracies of V.V.’s reading of history. If it was too obnoxious for her delicate sensibilities i apologize. Now let me see if you’ll leave this up:

    fact: the Jaffna Library was not burned by ‘thugs’ – stating that it was is a misreading of history and makes it seem that it was a random event committed by criminals.

    The burning of the Jaffna Library was ANYTHING but random and/or committed by criminals. As even the most cursory search on google (wiki or if you want to delve further there are other sources) or research in academic journals will show it was a targeted action carried out on the orders of Ministers (Sinhalese) of the governing UNP party (99% Sinhalese). This was confirmed by the SL President (also UNP) in 1991 when he accused “…his political opponents within his UNP party, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake” (both of whom are Sinhalese) of the burning of the library and the anti-Tamil rioting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_Jaffna_library) – other independent sources have confirmed this.

    It is also well documented by many independent sources (both national & international) that the persons who actually carried out the burning and killing were dressed in Police uniforms (in SL the police & armed forces are 99% Sinhalese).

    This was an act of cultural genocide… a coordinated attempt to wipe out the linguistic & cultural history of Tamils on the island – thousands of 2000-3000 year old documents (on palmyarh paper) & books which existed no where else in the world were systematically destroyed and the building then torched.

    Again, to reduce this event to an act of ‘thugs’ is to ignore history and to ignore the goal of the burning of the library – ie cultural genocide. Many (i don’t know if VV is one of them) these days ARE attempting to cover up the past, to draw a line under the past and ‘move forward’… but can there be peace without justice? justice without truth? or ‘reconciliation’ without a reckoning? those who do not know, acknowledge and address history will definitely repeat it….

    lots of love to you all

  5. some great photos – but the comments/descriptions Walpole puts on his pics are a bit annoying

    for example: the one about valentines cards – c’mon, gimme a break the LTTE cadre were/are HUMAN BEINGS with feelings, loves & lives – to think that there were not is to demonize them so as to create ‘the other’ that is easier to kill

    advice for Walpole – for your captions just put: date, place & maybe (but not necessarily) who or what the pic is of – let the photo speak for itself – no silly descriptions


  6. tamil rasta: Perhaps the goal of the photo was to humanize LTTE cadre, which goes against the dominant narrative of who comprised the LTTE?

  7. truth:

    Your tone and language are misogynistic, among other things. That should be said. I did not delete your post, but if my sensibilities were delicate, I should not be ashamed of that; delicacy, skilfully deployed, is useful.

    You are free to clarify or expand on the term “thugs.” I disagree with your reading of the word as inaccurate: thug status does not, in fact, preclude simultaneously holding a government position. (Er, you can do it all?) So this is somewhat semantic. The post is not about the Jaffna library; therefore I kept my description of what happened at the library relatively brief. But if you wish to describe what happened at greater length, go ahead. Certainly it was a grievous crime perpetrated by representatives of the law and government. Apparently unlike you, I also consider them thugs.

  8. @VV – lol… “misogynistic”? how so? can a woman be misogynistic? i guess i am a self hating woman then! pavum for me. Kind of like a self hating jew or tamil.

    since you’re the one putting the labels out there why do you assume that the word “delicate” is pejorative to the female of our species? i know many delicate men!

    yes, they are ‘thugs’, but the burning of the library was more than just a “grievous crime perpetrated by representatives of the law and government” and by characterizing it as such, ie a grievous ‘crime’, you deny the root cause of a conflict that continues to this day. The end of ‘war’ is not the end of ‘conflict’. So, while Sri Lanka MAY (or may not) be “post-war” it is definitely not “post-conflict”. To characterize the burning of the library as a criminal act is to ignore and mischaracterize (purposefully? inadvertently?) the event.

    & yes, the post was not about the library but the photos ARE of the war & conflict and so my clarification and pointing out of your mischaracterization is relevant to the post.

    @abhi – please elaborate on why the original post was ‘obnoxious’ – seriously, i’m not being facetious, i can’t rightly ‘member wot it was dat i said

    this whole site is nutty

  9. whoops, obviously, i’m both ‘truth’ & ‘tamil rasta’ & have multiple personalities… it’s because i keep forgetting to click “remember me” and so can’t re-post as the same person

    blaaaady ‘ell