Rush Hour in Pettah
Naattamis move out with their distinctive two-wheeled handcarts heavily laden with produce that has just been unloaded from the lorries on the left. Everything from salted fish, grain, flour, potatoes, and fresh produce is trucked into Colombo each morning from the nearby port, rural rice mills, coastal fishing villages, and farming cooperatives in the Central Highlands. Once they reach the narrow streets of the Pettah, however, they must be unloaded and carried in the carts and on the backs of these naattamis (Sri Lanka’s street version of the dockside stevedore), into the many small stores and wholesalers that pack Colombo’s huge market district. Without the naattami, the markets of Pettah would grind to a standstill. 4th Cross Street, September 2022. 

• 35mm • f/2.8 • 1/640 • ISO200 • Canon R6 & RF 35/1.8 courtesy Canon/Metropolitan


Evening on 2nd Cross Street

Pedestrians, traffic, and pavement hawkers vie for space in Colombo’s major bazaar, the Pettah. January 2023.

• 35mm • f/4 • 1/125 • ISO800 • R6 & RF14-35/4L •

Rush, Rush, Rush
Daylight begins to fade on Prince Street, in Colombo’s Pettah area. January 2023.

• 14mm • f/4 • 1/125 • ISO2500 • R6 & RF14-35/4L •

Portrait of a Naattami #2
Bathed in sweat, a naatami takes a breather after unloading a lorry on 4th Cross Street, in Colombo’s main market district of the Pettah. September 2022.

• 35mm • f/2.8 • 1/250 • ISO400 • Canon R6 & RF 35/1.8 courtesy Canon/Metropolitan.

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.

Naattami, Old Moor Street
Pettah, September 2020.

• 35mm • f/6.3 • 1/200 • ISO400 • M6MkII & EF-M 15-45mm/3.5-6.3 courtesy Canon/Metropolitan.

Timeless Pettah
A naattami hauls his heavily laden cart across Gas Works Junction, in September 2020. Centre left is the Old Town Hall, built in the neo-Gothic style by the British colonial government in 1873. It is now used by the Colombo Fire Brigade. In the distance are the minarets of the Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid, or Red Mosque, towering over Main Street.

*shot on an M6MkII & EFM15-45mm/3.5-5.6, courtesy Canon/Metropolitan.

Stay Home, Stay Safe
A naattami, the ubiquitious urban stevedore of Colombo’s market district, hauls a heavy load of grain along Dam Street, in the Pettah, in September 2020. For labourers such as he and, indeed, many others who earn a daily wage, staying home in the corona pandemic is not an option. Government-imposed round-the-clock lockdowns and restricted travel (the latter requiring employment papers or identification cards for movement; documentation that most workers in the casual sector do not have) inevitably affect millions, mostly in the lower and middle income brackets.

*shot on an M6MkII & 15-45mm/3.5-5.6, courtesy Canon/Metropolitan.

Pettah Hard Man
A naattami, the ubiquitous stevedore of the Pettah, swears fluently but good-humouredly while waiting for me to take his picture. Manning Market, Colombo. April 2018.