There is something terribly inspiring about an artist who has the ability to transform their art into humanitarian work, and as any practising artist knows, making rent and eating tend to be at the top of the priority list, so fundraising, and pushing one’s focus out is often out of the question. For an outstanding pair of photographers like Tara O’Hehir and Seshanka ‘Shanks’ Samarajiwa of The Equal Project, though, this was not the case.
I caught up with Tara for a chat regarding her inspirations, focus, and any advice she might have to aspiring, emerging, practising or professional artists out there.
How did this project come about?
Okay, so Shanks is originally from Sri Lanka and a few years ago I planned a trip to visit him from the UK, for a holiday. Before the holiday came about, we began to question how we could incorporate our photography skills into more meaningful work and by the time I actually arrived in Sri Lanka, our concept had turned into a business venture. We both agreed that photography can be a powerful tool to tell stories and to break through language barriers, particularly in multi-lingual countries. Thus the Equal Project was born, from a desire to use our art to effect change and compassionately connect with the people around us.
Are there any specific stories which come to mind as profound moments during this project?
There are so many stories that move you, but one that stands out is when we went to Delft, in the north, there were multiple people there who haven’t seen their kids for 13 years. In the last few years of the war, the Tamil Tigers would come and take one child per family and recruit them into their regime. When the end of the war came, it was sudden and abrupt and many families had no idea if their kids were still alive or not. I remember one family where the daughter offered to go in order to protect her siblings, for example.
Yeh, it’s pretty full on to hear, you know. That’s only one story but it has impacted the region significantly.
What cultural challenges did you face on the road?
Well, linguistically I found it difficult as I don’t speak Tamil, so i’m hearing these stories through a translator. It’s the strangest experience because you see the expressions on the subject’s face before understanding the story. It is amazing what you can pick up without speaking the language. There are so many other elements of effective communication.
Did the experience change you at all?
Definitely! I mean, on Delft they have a saying that goes, ‘What’s the point in being sad, so we’re happy.’ They’re at peace with what has happened, and though the island is split into many languages and religions, the majority have the same experience of kidnapping, so help eachother through with this kind of philosophy. I learned it was often those who had suffered the most, who had this acceptance and love in their hearts and that understanding has certainly changed how I seek to interact with the world. I wouldn’t call it a great experience, necessarily, because with the ‘greatness’ of this project, comes so much suffering and loss. It has opened my eyes but also given me more responsibility to contribute.
Any advice for artists who wish to travel their works and take the next step internationally?
Well the biggest thing I’ve noticed in getting it to happen is actually just doing it. We heard that a few times, within the creative and humanitarian industries, we were advised to just get out there and start actioning. To stay with an idea that keeps expanding can be cyclical and non-productive, but when you begin DOING it, you learn so much more about where the project can actually take you. Don’t worry about the ‘how’, just get the motor running!
If every artist is their own biggest critic, what have you learnt about your own art over the past year?
I’m definitely my own biggest critic but working with Shanks taught me that comparison can be really destructive, and in fact it isn’t about who is ‘better’, it’s about what you’re actually doing with your skill and that you’re actually doing it, inlinewith your own values and with integrity. Also, I’ve learnt a lot about the process. I see things totally differently now, like how I consider light, flexibility and natural energy.
Any final words?
Well, I’ve always wanted to help the community in some way but never thought I could because I’m not a doctor or a lawyer etc. Then, to actually create that situation, well I learned anyone can do it, and you know, photography is such a powerful tool to cross barriers and judgements that we give to eachother.
You’re all kinds of awesome. Thanks so much for your time and insights. How can we keep in touch with you?
We’ve got an exhibition coming up, a Facebook page and Instagram listed if anyone would like to follow our work.
Preview Book Launch – 7th December 2014.
Book Launch – March 2015
Sri Lanka Book Launch – August 2015