Evil Eye

Sri Lanka’s Lotus Tower is probably the most easily noticeable symbol of the government corruption and ineptitude that brought on the worst economic catastrophe in the island nation’s history. Ordered by former President Mahinda Rajapakse in 2012, the tower, the tallest in South Asia, and visible from practically every part of the capital, Colombo, is viewed by many as a vanity project, costing as much as $104 million to build, but with little use beyond glorifying the leadership of the former president and his party (the Sri Lanka Podujana Pakshaya’s symbol is a lotus). This photograph was taken from 5th Cross Street, in the city’s market district of Pettah, in January 2023.

• 35mm • f/4 • 1/100 • ISO6400 • R6 & RF14-35/4L •


A Spot of Light Shopping in Pettah

Sri Lankans shop for rechargeable light bulbs as the country continues to face widespread power cuts for the second year running. The worst economic catastrophe in Sri Lankan history arriving amidst an already rising energy crisis has left the population struggling to run both businesses and homes. Prince Street, Colombo. January 2023.

• 35mm • f/4 • 1/80 • ISO400 • R6 & RF14-35/4L •

Portrait of Unemployment

Naattamis (a sort of Sri Lankan urban stevedore, employed to unload produce from lorries in Colombo’s main market district of Pettah) usually begin work before dawn, hauling heavy sacks of vegetables, potatoes, and dry goods on their distinctive two-wheeled carts, labouring until late morning to keep the wholesale stores of the market stocked. But the unprecedented economic downturn in the country has seen an agricultural system scuppered by fertiliser shortages, and transportation hampered by infrequent fuel supplies. The result is a drastic reduction of produce entering the capital from distant farms and fishing towns. When I took this picture at 7.30am, on 4th Cross Street, these naattamis should have been busily racing up and down the narrow warren of lanes; instead, they were sitting around without work, fearing there would be no more that morning, and very little the next day. Pettah, September 2022.

• 35mm • f/2.8 • 1/500 • ISO400 • Canon R6 & RF 35/1.8 courtesy Canon/Metropolitan.

“Those Days when We were Young…”

Thus begins the familiar tale often heard when older people lament the prices of things today. But in a Sri Lanka staggering under an economic disaster unknown in modern history, skyrocketing inflation has made the ‘Good Ol’ Days’ seem like just yesterday. In this April 2018 picture, shot for a J Walter Thompson market study, salted prawns at the FOSE Market, in Pettah, Colombo’s main market district, go for just Rs100 (about 65 US cents at the time) for 100g. Today, the rupee price of this is almost seven times higher (though still just under $2, due to the nose-diving rupee).

• 105mm • f/4 • 1/50 • ISO400 •

Gota’s Gone. Now What?

Police barricades smashed aside by protestors on 9th July 2022, lie by the side of a street leading to Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, one of several government buildings stormed and sacked by angry mobs demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapakse. By the end of that fateful day, Rajapakse, accused of corruption and ineptness, and blamed for creating an economic crisis unparalleled in Sri Lanka’s history, would announce his resignation, and flee the country four days later. A full month down the road, Sri Lanka remains in crisis; led by a caretaker president picked as a successor by Rajapakse himself, and with a cabinet full of ministers who legislated the very policies that crushed the economy they’re now tasked with repairing. Much to the chagrin of large segments of the population, no charges of corruption have been brought to bear on Gotabaya Rajapakse, now living in self-imposed exile in Singapore, or on his brothers and nephew, powerful cabinet ministers in his government, and still members of Parliament. Instead, the authorities have focused on dismantling protests and targeting individual protestors with petty — though punitive — charges of trespassing, vandalism, and theft. While the past month has seen some easing of fuel shortages, mostly through much delayed rationing, Sri Lanka still hasn’t seen any of the economic measures necessary to begin the long process of recovery.

• 18mm • f/3.5 • 1/125 • ISO1600 •

Open to the Public

Protestors stroll freely in and out of the once heavily barricaded rear gate of Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister of Sri Lanka, unhindered by the police. On 9th July 2022, protestors stormed several government buildings in Colombo, including President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat, in spite of initial resistance by the authorities, who used water cannon, tear gas, and even live ammunition on the advancing crowd, holding them off until President Gotabaya Rajapakse had made his escape. In contrast, the president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapakse, who had been forced to resign as PM in May, under the weight of public demand, abandoned Temple Trees well in advance of the protestors. The president himself would announce his resignation later that afternoon, and flee the country four days later, leaving the country in the hands of a caretaker president, Ranil Wickremesinghe who, in late July and August, would oversee the arrest and detention of many protestors, charging them with petty violations, such as trespassing, vandalism, and disturbance of the peace.

• 18mm • f/3.5 • 1/200 • ISO1600 •

Forbidden Ground

Special Task Force policemen look on as protestors stroll unrestricted through the grounds of Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister of Sri Lanka, once one of the most heavily guarded and fortified spots in Colombo. 9th July 2022. Forced, by the weight of public protest, to resign in May, Mahinda Rajapakase had fled earlier that day.

• 18mm • f/3.5 • 1/100 • ISO800 •

Gota, Go Home

Except for its flag seemingly at half-mast in deference, the façade of the US Embassy remains impassive to the Sri Lankans protesting before it, on Galle Road, in Colombo, on 9th July 2022, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapakse resign. A former dual citizen, Rajapakse gave up his American nationality to run for the Sri Lankan presidency in November 2019. There is now speculation, however, on whether he had divested himself of his US citizenship at the time of his nomination, leading to further queries on the legality of his presidency. By the end of the day, Rajapakse would announce his resignation and, three days later, would be refused a visa to enter the USA. On 13th July he would flee to the Maldives, and on to Singapore, accused of corruption, ineptness, and creating the biggest economic catastrophe in Sri Lankan history.

• 18mm • f/3.5 • 1/3200 • ISO400 •

Court of the People

Young protestors celebrate as news arrives on social media that Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakse has agreed to step down. Galle Face Court, Colombo. 9th July 2022. Months of public protest culminated in violent clashes between demonstrators and the authorities, and the storming of the presidential palace and several government offices. Rajapakse would flee to the Maldives four days later, accused of corruption and ineptness, and causing the biggest economic disaster in the country’s recorded history.

• 18mm • f/3.5 • 1/2500 • ISO400 •

Under the Temple Trees

Young protestors occupy the grounds of Temple Trees, the official Colpetty residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. 9th July 2022. The day began with violent clashes between the frontline of the protest and the authorities, who used tear gas, batons, and even live ammunition to hold off protestors from President’s House, in the Colombo Fort, until its reviled resident, Gotabaya Rajapakse, could escape to safety. In contrast, Temple Trees was captured with little violence, in the late afternoon; Mahinda Rajapakse, the president’s brother, having been forced out of office in May, had left before the residence was overrun. Gotabaya Rajapakse himself would flee the country four days later.

• 18mm • f/3.5 • 1/200 • ISO400 •