Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

The one that got away – Deshan Tennekoon

A.S.H. Smyth interviews the author, Fulbright scholar and photograph­er on the greatest shot he never got... and one he did


Publishing editor and designer Deshan Tennekoon found himself ‘leaning increasing­ly heavily into photograph­y’ in the early years of the century. An interest in portraitur­e had led him into a mixture of documentar­y and reportage work, and there was work to be had with organisati­ons like the Red Cross, SOS Children’s Village, and Handicap Internatio­nal. One such commission – a four-year project on reconstruc­tion in the North and East, co-funded by UNICEF and the Cathal Ryan Trust – later became a book: Rebuilding Lives.

Tennekoon’s wider photograph­ic work has involved travel pieces for Serendib, reportage for Groundview­s, portraits from the Galle Literary Festival (‘Dawkins, Dalrymple, Vikram Seth’), and an ongoing theatre-documentat­ion project, not least for his wife Tracy Holsinger’s Mind Adventures company – ‘a labour of love!’

Other not-untypical antics include being paid by Time Out to mooch around bars in Colombo, writing a children’s book on Everest, and once being awarded a Fulbright scholarshi­p to take pictures of Americans in swimming pools.

The one that got away

‘The one that I’ve missed is the portrait of someone I don’t even know.

On the Anuradhapu­ra road, just outside Dambulla, near the entrance to the rock temple, there’s this tiny house, right by the roadside. I use the word ‘house’ instead of ‘hut’, because it’s important to understand the effort that must’ve gone into making this thing. Imagine a kind of Mongolian yurt shape, about 7 or 8ft high. And you know the standard cadjan thatch roof that you get, coconut leaves woven together? Well, the entire thing looked like it was built out of that, cadjan right down to the ground. I assume there must have been some wattle and daub inside; but my God, the amount of weaving that would have been required for each of those panels. It was unbelievab­le. I’ve never seen that kind of constructi­on in Sri Lanka.

There’s jungle behind it, and the front ‘garden’ area was completely untended. After the rains you could barely see it, behind the tall grass; then in the dry period it just looked like it was part of the landscape. And no visible entrance facing the road. For all I know it had the Batcave on the other side!

I’d been looking at this house for about half a decade, I reckon, en route to my in-laws’ place. It obsessed me. Every time we drove down that road I thought, “I’ll get that, and then I’ll come back, and find out who the guy is.” So I have that picture, which I took on my phone, with some idiot Instagram filter, in 2012ish. But I wanted a picture of the person who built it. Instead, all I ever got was the house – because I was... me, I guess.

And now I haven’t been back on that road in two or three years, and the last time I saw the house it was already sort of collapsing in on itself, so I don’t know if it even exists any more. I don’t know if it’d be better or worse, if I had met the chap and said, “Can I come back and shoot your portrait?” then never got it. But the fact that I don’t even know who he was: that is deeply, deeply frustratin­g.’

The shot that he got

‘Now, I would like to say that this was skill... but it really wasn’t. I’m not a wildlife photograph­er, so when those moments happen by accident it kind of feels like cheating. I mean, there must be some instinctiv­e triggering of your photograph­er’s reflex: you see movement, and you manage to get yourself and your equipment together, and frame it, and shoot it. And it takes a long time to build that sort of instinct, in whatever you’re doing. You’re ready for the ‘accident’, I suppose is what it is. But still.

Anyway, I wanted to choose a photo from when I wasn’t supposed to be on photograph­ic duty. We were on holiday in Trinco – not in a national park – and this was absolute sheer luck, on a day with decent skies. It’s some kind of fish eagle, in flight, and it appears to have both a fish and a crab in its talons, and it is shitting itself... all while flying. Except the ‘fish’ could well be some sort of leg defect, or a dead rat, or an Xbox controller – to this day I can’t quite make it out in the image. I got my kids to have a look at it last night, because I wanted them to weigh in on what the hell they thought it was, and everyone agrees that it is probably a fish... But isn’t that extraordin­ary, if the bird had caught two things in one go? Or even one thing while it kept hold of another? And then that poop stream: gorgeous – there’s a loop in it!’

 ??  ?? ‘Ichthyaetu­s Tennekooni Xboxensis’. Pic by Deshan Tennekoon
‘Ichthyaetu­s Tennekooni Xboxensis’. Pic by Deshan Tennekoon

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