THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF TILAK HETTIGE

PHOTOGRAPHER TILAK HETTIGEMANILA, September 1, 2003  (MALAYA) By JOSE CLAUDIO B. GUERRERO - A YOUNG woman looks heavenward, her delicate face framed by a lacy veil. It is dark where she is and her skin's luminescence contrasts beautifully with her somber clothing. Who is she? What is her name? What is she thinking?

The caption beneath her picture makes you give the artwork a double take. It says she is a lady in the Muslim quarters of Xian, China. The photograph is rare for it has caught her without her face veil, an article of clothing very seldom removed by women of her religion. It says further that she was photographed near the Great Mosque that was built around 742 A.D. As you marvel over this photograph, you hear snatches of world music evoke images of great plains, ancient temples, lotus ponds, and shimmering stones. The cool air is suffused with the fragrance of white frangipani blossoms floating in clay tubs scattered all over the exhibit area. Thus are you beguiled to view the exhibit of renowned Sri Lankan photographer Tilak Hettige titled "Moments of Being II" at the DLSU-College of Saint Benilde.

Consisting of 33 photographs taken over the past 15 years, the exhibit, which ran until Aug. 29, provided a quick glimpse at the range of subject matter and treatment that Hettige employs to create his award-winning photographs.

Much of what was on display revealed Hettige's partiality to tones of gold and deep purple, colors as rich and vibrant as the cultures of the people he prefers to photograph. From a Muslim woman in China and a child nomad in Mongolia to a Hindu spiritual attendant to the gods in Bangladesh and an aged couple in Batanes, his photographs of people belonging to various often-marginalized ethno-linguistic and religious groups dominate the show.

Interspersed with this broad narrative on cultural diversity is a smattering of nature and still life studies - a couple of mushrooms, some trees, a herd of horses, a deserted beach, a Christmas tree bauble, a cartwheel. Though the juxtaposition of certain photographs can be somewhat jarring, and the exhibitís lighting design confuses the logic of the set-up, the artistry with which these photographs were taken is enough to make up for the previous shortcomings.

The strength of Hettige's work lies in his ability to tell volumes with his pictures. By careful addition of everyday human subjects, he transforms the study of a rock into a conversation piece, a carpet sold by the wayside into the premise of a novel, an alpine field into a dream. By being emotionally involved with his subjects, he is able to draw out the real characters behind his subjects and capture this in his picturesóno small feat considering that he has had to communicate with most of his subjects through pantomime.

During the interview with Hettige at the exhibit opening, one can easily see that for him, reaching out to people comes automatically. His intelligence is becomingly paired with warmth and respect. Within a few minutes one is already perfectly at ease with him as he regales listeners with stories behind the taking of particular pictures. It is surprising that he remembers in detail how each shot came about. He recalls how he was traveling along the ancient Karakorum Highway in Kyrgyztan when he passed by an old woman wearing an aquamarine headscarf. The brilliance of the headscarf caught his eye and he recalled seeing a carpet hung by a fence a few meters back having the same color. He asked the driver to stop the car and managed to gesture to the old woman that he wanted to take a picture of her standing in front of the carpet. The resulting picture was a masterpiece and it has since been exhibited in five countries.

Hettige also recalls how the photograph of two elderly Mongolian women nearly cost him his life. The artist met the women as they sat by the roadside waiting for a mini-bus. Again, through pantomime, Hettige convinced the women to be photographed. The three had so much fun taking pictures that they soon forgot the time and didnít realize the mini-bus had been waiting for them to finish. Hettige got the scare of his life when the giant bus driver came rushing at him with a dagger. The driver thought Hettige was intentionally ruining his business by holding the women up so the bus can't leave. Luckily for everyone, another Mongolian intervened and explained to everyone what was happening. And, as in the previous story, the resulting photograph has been toured in several countries and has been published internationally.

Hettige's exhibit was mounted by a group of students from DLSU-St. Benilde. The fact that the artist entrusted his works of art with students reveals much of how the artist views his craft. Hettige considers being a photographer as all about experiencing and sharing other people's lives. For him, photography is observation and discovery. Hettige says that it is important that one should appreciate the world and see beauty in the simplest of things and in everyday people. There is always something that can be learned, that can be appreciated, from all things. So a student project is, for Hettige, never too trivial for an artist of his stature. In fact, Hettige has agreed to conduct a photography workshop for students and young photographers in relation to the exhibit.

Hettige is Sri-lankan born, but currently resides in Manila with his wife and daughters. He began working in the photography industry in 1981. He left Sri Lanka in 1983 and studied chemical engineering in the Unisted States. However, his love for photography won out in the end. He then studied at the New England School of Photography in Boston. He first won international acclaim when he became photographer of the year in the International Photographic Society, Washington D.C. in 1997. After that he has won a slew of other awards and has been published in many books, international newspapers, magazines, and calendars. He is a current member of the prestigious Photography Club of the Philippines and is wrapping up work on an upcoming coffee table book, a compilation of faces around the world.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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