Every year, around six million pilgrims flock to the French town of Lourdes. Their destination is the site of an infamous vision experienced by a young girl in the late nineteenth century, who is said to have seen the Virgin Mary. To this day, the town retains a special importance in the Christian community, with visitors travelling from across the world with the hope of being cured by the miraculous waters of the grotto where the vision took place. Fascinated by the spiritual significance of the town, British photographer Alys Tomlinson first visited Lourdes more than five years ago.
This journey was the first step in what would become a long-term photographic exploration of the profound connection between people, landscape and faith. Devoting herself fully to the study of her subject, Tomlinson undertook an MA in Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage while developing a contemplative aesthetic approach that traced the markers left behind at pilgrimage sites—in Ballyvourney in Ireland and Grabarka in Poland too—and created a portrait of those who left them behind. The project has recently shifted from the collective, to the individual life of an Orthodox nun called Vera, and the Belarusian convent she lives in.
LensCulture caught up with Tomlinson at the Rencontres d’Arles to speak about finding the quieter, hidden pockets of devotion in the busy landscape of Lourdes, the importance of shooting in black and white, and her in-progress film project that explores the faith of the enigmatic Vera—the protagonist of the photographer’s most recent images.
LensCulture: You came to photography after studying English Literature, discovering the medium first by shooting on the street. Are any of the things you were originally drawn to when you started out that are still present in your work?
Alys Tomlinson: My degree show was made up of pictures of my local park in Brighton—black and white, 35mm—that I printed myself. They were of people and places, and each photo tried to capture the atmosphere and changing light of the park. The other one was a personal study of my dad, consisting of a slideshow portrait of him, without him actually being in it. So, yes, I suppose these themes are similar in terms of developing relationships with certain people, and having them become a protagonist in my project. But I’ve also always really loved black and white, even though I work in color as well. In a way, I have come back to the seeds that were quite present in my very, very early work.
LC: How did you come across Lourdes and become interested in its function as a major Catholic pilgrimage site?
AT: I saw a fiction film by a really great female director called Jessica Hausner called Lourdes. It showed the landscape, but it also showed stories within it. People were wearing these incredibly theatrical costumes. I suppose I’ve always been curious in general, and wanted to learn more about people’s faith.
LC: Can you give a bit of an historical background of the town? What was your first experience of visiting it like?
AT: It’s all to do with a young girl named Bernadette who had a vision of Virgin Mary there in 1858. It became a well-known pilgrimage site. It was reported that people who visited it would experience vast improvements in their health. There was a feeling that the place had healing powers just by being in the river, drinking the water and bathing in it. It grew, but because it grew so much, it’s now incredibly commercial and touristy.
I booked myself on a pilgrim package tour for a week to visit. I found it very interesting, though it is very commercial. I then started discovering pockets that were much less touristy. I was more interested in these quieter spaces, where people would sit, think, and pray for hours. I really enjoyed being there, because for me, I felt the absence of city life—running around, being stressed the whole time. I enjoyed being in these places and in nature.
LC: The first series of images you took there are very different to the material you are working with now. Can you tell me about the shift in this approach?
AT: The project took quite a while to develop because I was shooting in color and I was getting some nice images, but I wasn’t reaching the depth that I wanted to. I didn’t have the mystery that I sensed while I was there; the photographs I made were these nice, editorial images. I became frustrated because I kept going back, but I still couldn’t quite get it. It seemed obvious afterwards, but I realized what I needed to do was slow down the entire process, because these spaces are very reflective.
When I got to that point, it was great because I knew the places and landscapes very well. I thought I should give it one last shot. I dusted off my really old large-format camera, and as soon as I shot in black and white, it worked. It’s the simplicity and purity of the places that made it necessary to create work that was very stripped back.
LC: Faith is a difficult thing to photograph. What was your approach to making it visual and tangible?
AT: I soon realized that all of these little mementos left in rocks and hidden under stones were actually ex-votos: objects of devotion. I’d seen them everywhere, but hadn’t known the term. What ties the people, their faith and the landscape together is the ex-voto that they leave behind. That’s when the three strands of people, place and faith all came together for me.
As soon as I got the contact sheets back from that trip, there were certain images that I looked at and thought, “Yes, this is what I’ve always wanted.” They possessed strength, but also this quietness and thoughtfulness, and the quality that you get with large-format is beautiful. It was annoying because I had already been working for two years on it without this result, but I would have never reached that stage otherwise.
LC: Tell me about the people you were photographing.
AT: Lourdes is the first pilgrimage site I visited out of three. All sorts of people go for various reasons. A lot of very sick people go there with the hope of getting cured. They’re not expecting to jump out of their wheelchairs and run a marathon, but they will get a lot of spiritual strength out of being there. There’s a very strong sense of community.
I decided I didn’t want to photograph the very visibly sick, because I really wanted it to be a sensitive and respectful portrayal of the place. You see some very shocking things, and that would’ve been a very different project. In a couple of the portraits, the people are very sick, but you wouldn’t know it. Other portraits are of helpers who go to look after the sick and other pilgrims, who go as a kind of ritual to pray for their families.
LC: How did you approach the people you photographed? What was your relationship with them?
AT: The longer I spent there, and the more times I visited, I ended up with a residency at a place that houses the sick. We could stay there for free in return for us taking pictures for them—in a much more documentary, fly-on-the-wall style. We got to know people better, and because it took five years by the end of it, I began to recognize some of the visitors.
The first time I went, I noticed a lot of the pilgrims were wearing these dramatic cloaks and the men were wearing boiler suits. It turned out that they were part of an organization called The Order of Malta, which is mostly made up of quite privileged people—a wealthy order in the Catholic church. They take an international week-long pilgrimage every year. They come from all over the world, and their presence is very striking. I deliberately went there several times during that week, so I got to know some of them and keep in touch with them.
Other people also grew to know me and my assistant, and became quite familiar with seeing us around. The people I photographed responded very differently to my large-format camera, because using it is more of an event. It’s not just a snap; it takes time to set up. You have to be very precise. There’s almost a rhythm to it, so the way you have that kind of vigil—or photographic exchange—changes.
LC: It’s very reflective of devotional and spiritual rhythms too.
AT: Yes. I’m there, having to do these things in preparation, and they’re standing there, just being in that moment. You both get into this kind of thoughtful zone. I don’t think I could have achieved that or got to that place if I just went out and took a quick snap.
LC: Did you experience any barriers as an outsider, especially when you started shooting in the early stages on medium-format?
AT: A little bit, but that’s because I wasn’t getting close, and I wasn’t really meeting people in the same way. The portraits that are now part of the project result from me talking to people, explaining what I’m doing, and telling them that we’ll need at least half an hour and that we need to do it it in the space where they go to think and pray, and that it’s about their relationship with nature. It was a much fuller experience working with that camera and taking that path.
LC: Did you talk to people about their faith while you were photographing? And did you talk about your own relationship to faith?
AT: Very much so. Sometimes they would ask me if I was religious. I would say there was great respect both ways, because I was very honest with them. I’d tell them, “No, but I’m very interested in learning more, and I find these places very moving.” It’s hard to not be moved by what you see and experience there, and they understood that. I have a great deal of respect for their levels of devotion, but also for the strength that they get from it. I’m quite envious because I don’t have that, and because I see how it can really improve difficult times. There’s a kind of safety that they have in terms of their belief. Most people were really open to it and were proud of their faith. It felt that this was an important part of who they were, and they were happy to share that.
LC: With the people in the film, the religious community you’re working with is rather different from the pilgrims. Tell me about how the project evolved in that direction?
AT: Yes, the film is a little bit different. It came out of me meeting Vera, who was the main nun from the Ex-Voto series. I met her at one of the three sites that I visited—Grabarka—which is on the Eastern border of Poland. She was incredible from the moment I saw her: this amazing, extraordinary presence with a very intense kind of gaze.
LC: Her portrait is very striking.
AT: Yes, she’s got that something, and I’m definitely drawn to her—probably more than anyone else in the whole project. She invited me to her monastery in Belarus. I went there with my assistant and began to discover more about her life in the convent.
LC: It seems that over the course of your work around this theme, you’ve moved from the collective and external manifestations of faith with the ex-votos towards the intimate, individual, daily practices of devotion. Can you tell me more about the community in Belarus that you focus on in the film?
AT: Once we did the film, we were suddenly given extraordinary access to this Orthodox Christian community. In some ways, it’s a kind of hidden, secretive world. The people there have had really hard lives. It’s is a really hard country—it’s poor, there is huge unemployment, they have seriously brutal winters. It’s a tough life there, and as part of the monastery, they have these rehabilitation centers in the countryside for men and women who come from these very difficult backgrounds to attend.
In the film, Vera mentions that they find them in forests and railway stations; sometimes they’re dumped outside the monastery door. These are people who really have nowhere else to go. They’re brought into the community, and as part of them being included, they take an active role in the service and the liturgies. Their faith is really pivotal to them being there. There’s no deal or anything like that, but because they get free food and accommodation, they work on the land in exchange. They are also required to go to religious services, such as liturgies, if they want to remain in the community. This was the case with Vera. She says that she was depressed and lost before, and this community gives her purpose and a new kind of meaning in life.
LC: What would you say is the shift in focus from the earlier Ex-Voto images to when you met Vera and made the film?
AT: When I went to Belarus to visit Vera at the convent for the first time, I was with my assistant, who is a very talented filmmaker in her own right—she’s been with me through the whole journey. We just wanted to get to know Vera because she’s so intriguing—but she only gives you tit-bits, even though very open and generous in other ways. One of the main things that we discovered was this incredible relationship that she has with horses. There’s this intense intimacy. She says she finds horses very spiritual creatures, and she has this extraordinary connection with them.
In the film, we didn’t direct. We just went and filmed. The way she is with them is very playful, but also really tender.
LC: The film really seems to draw on the pace and stillness of your large-format photographs. Did the aesthetic you were working with help direct your focus?
AT: So, when I went to do the film, I knew how I wanted to frame it and compose it to capture these very quiet, still moments. In the liturgies, there would be the priest with the incense and all this other stuff going on, but then the sisters were standing in the corners like shadows—still, almost like statues, for hours. What I found most interesting was that there was this community aspect, but that time on your own with God is also very important—he’s part of their daily life.
LC: The relationship with the horse is very interesting in the sense of capturing something as intangible as faith and devotion through a gesture.
AT: Yes, there’s a reason horses are used for therapy a lot. Vera has ridden as well from a young age, so she’s always had this connection. Her obedience, which is the role that you’re given in the monastery, is looking after the horses on the farm. I think she’s closer to the horses—and, as she would say, God—than she is to any human being. In some ways, she’s very open and almost likes the performance aspect of being filmed and photographed, and in other ways she’s very private. You have to kind of peel back the layers and it takes a long time. We’re also working on a longer film about her because there’s so much more to tell.
LC: It must be a new experience to communicate one’s personal relationship to faith.
AT: It’s funny because the sisters are much more clued up than you would think. They live this very monastic life on the one hand, with these rituals that have been around since around the sixth century—but then they’re always on WhatsApp. The convent has a website, you know, so it’s not that they’ve come from this kind of reclusive community They understand what happens in modern life and some of them really embrace it in terms of technology. They choose to not live their lives entirely in that way, of course.
LC: After spending five years following these communities, how has your relationship to faith developed or changed?
AT: It’s to do with respect. I’ve seen what it brings people, which is sometimes joy, strength and comfort, particularly in certain situations. But, actually what’s interesting is realizing that becoming a nun is a really radical decision. Vera has been there since she was 20—she’s now 42. It’s interesting to be so sure about something at such a young age and to commit in that way. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when she questions her faith, or she wavers, but it’s quite a brave choice.
And, also, the work they do with the community is invaluable. There are times when they’re standing on their own and it’s about what’s happening in their heads, but then there is their day-to-day life. They work really hard, developing and improving the community and creating opportunities for people. Just look at the men and women in the film whose lives have been completely transformed since they’ve become part of it. Most of them wouldn’t be alive now if they weren’t “saved” in that religious sense.
I haven’t felt that I want to suddenly convert, but I can see the appeal. I can see why people do it and, actually, in somewhere like Belarus where there aren’t many opportunities, in some ways it’s quite a sensible career choice.