Alys Tomlinson’s pictures of local devotion to St Gobnait in Baile Mhúirne, Co Cork, helped her win the World Photographer of the Year prize, writes
LOURDES attracts around six million visitors per year, while every August more than 10,000 make the pilgrimage to Mount Grabarka, Poland’s biggest Orthodox Christian holy site.
Devotion to St Gobnait has yet to put the Cork village of Baile Mhúirne on the world map in terms of pilgrimage numbers, but its significance has not been lost on Alys Tomlinson.
The 2018 Sony World Photographer of the Year focused on these three European pilgrimage sites as subjects for her ‘Ex-Voto’ project which earned international acclaim and the $25,000 (€21,800) top prize in the Oscars of the camera world.
The tokens of faith, the offerings of religious devotion found at Christian pilgrimage sites are the ‘Ex-Voto’ which in Alys’ work create “a tangible narrative between faith, person, and the landscape”.
If the rosary beads, ribbons, and holy pictures left by those praying to St Gobnait in Baile Mhúirne caught the eye of the London-based editorial and fine art photographer, so too did the pilgrims themselves and the rugged landscape surrounding the Gaeltacht village.
Her ethereal portraits of people at prayer, her large format landscapes, and detailed studies of crosses etched into stones by passing pilgrims “reflect the mysterious, timeless quality present at these sites of great spiritual contemplation. People and landscape merge as place, memory and history entwine,” according to Alys.
Though all three sites have a “very specific calm and peace and are great places for contemplation,” Alys observed a distinct difference between Baile Mhúirne and the French and Polish locations.
“The scale of it is much smaller than Lourdes or the one in Poland. The people who go there are people who live very locally,” she said. “It’s very much embedded in their everyday lives, whereas at the other sites people were coming there often from abroad, so the sense of journey is slightly different.
“But in terms of what it offers photographically and visually, hopefully the [three sites] complement each other.”
Although large crowds gather to venerate Gobnait on her feast day each February, the shrine, church, and holy well associated with the 6th century patron saint of bees attract a steady flow of visitors on a daily basis, many performing the ‘rounds’ of pilgrim prayer.
“People come to do the rounds in a way that they don’t in the other sites,” Alys noted. “In Lourdes you also get the sick coming, but they don’t have the same everyday aspect [to their prayer] as in Baile Mhúirne.”
Lourdes was the starting point for Alys’ exploration of pilgrimage as visual art.
From an atheist background, she describes her project as “a journey, trying to understand the great devotion people have in their faith”.
She became interested in the concept of pilgrimage after watching the Jessica Hausner film Lourdes, going on to complete an MA in anthropology in which her dissertation was a study in pilgrimage, centred on the French shrine.
She then broadened her scope to look at Grabarka, where pilgrims have erected thousands of crosses on the Polish hillside. Seeking an Irish subject for her self-funded study, Alys initially considered the larger Knock shrine in Co Mayo. However, the peaceful, intimate atmosphere of St Gobnait’s shrine endeared it to Alys, who sought to explore visual contrasts and similarities between her three subjects.
Winning the Sony World Photography Awards has, said Alys, brought international attention both to her project and to Baile Mhúirne as a place of pilgrimage.
“I think it’s nice that somewhere that’s quite small on a global scale has been recognised for offering something visually and spiritually,” she said. “People have really taken to this series, partly because it offers a kind of solace from an urban environment, and people really seem to appreciate the stillness and quiet which is consistent over the three sites.
“My emphasis is on the visual representation,” added Alys, who was struck by the motif of ribbons, both tied near St Gobnait’s well, and stretched along the length of a 13th century wooden statue of the saint as devotees take ‘St Gobnait’s measure’ on her feast day.
“There were ribbons on a twig, or tied around a tree trunk, and I noticed an intertwining of the ribbons with nature,” she said.
Local people whom Alys met on her Cork visits recounted the traditions associated with Gobnait, who is reputed to have been inspired by the sighting of nine white deer to choose Baile Mhúirne as the site of her religious settlement.
“St Gobnait means something to everyone,” said Alys. “I got to know the community in a different way, that was impossible at the other sites because of their scale.”
The project was shot entirely on analogue, black and white, large format film, using an old fashioned 5x4 plate camera, which Alys believes reflects the thoughtful nature of ‘Ex-Voto’.
“This slows the process down and produces very beautiful images, rich in detail and texture,” she said.
It also produces the occasional accidental effect, such as a ghostly image of two men working in St Gobnait’s cemetery. “This is one that went wrong, but I liked the haunting feel, so I kept it in,” said Alys.
“I accidentally double-exposed the sheet of film, which is very easy to do with a 5x4 camera. You have to concentrate so carefully and there is a rhythm to working with the camera.
“I think the light was fading, so I was in a rush. I had no idea I’d done it until I got the contact sheets back, but I quite liked the results.”
The image will be among more than 20 brought by Alys back to Baile Mhúirne for her ‘Ex-Voto’ exhibition, opening on November 15 (7.30pm) at the village’s Ionad Cultúrtha and running until February 12, 2019, coinciding with the feast day of St Gobnait on February 11.