Transitions: Life, Love and Movement along the Sri Lankan Hill Trains
The project visualizes the theme of 'transition' by interweaving the train journey with the story of different generations of people that live in the Sri Lankan Hill Country. Visually, the story connects scenic images of the region with photos of the human connections observed while traveling on the train and living in its surrounding communities.
The trains in this region are historic, especially the one that connects the cities of Kandy and Ella. Over decades, these trains have been witnessing the change the country has undergone - and still is. For example, the development of a flourishing tea industry and the growing tourism in the National Park of Horton Plains. While life in Sri Lanka is moving faster, the train still moves slowly through the mist-wrapped mountains of the Hill Country - a route of incredible scenic beauty. This allows passengers to rest and disconnect for a brief period of time from their day-to-day duties. I traveled in all compartment 'classes' of the train to portray the fact that both locals and people who pass through the country use it, yet in different ways. This reality shows the transitions as well. The travel allowed me to capture in an authentic way the often shaky movements of the train and the silent moments that can be observed even if surrounded by so many people that one can hardly move the camera at all.
The Hill Train has impacted the lives of the diverse ethnic groups that live along its tracks. Many have been able to settle and make a living in the very remote mountain villages due to the train. I lived with the people I portrayed. A kind fixer that travelled with me helped me to speak to them about their lives, impactful changes experienced, and what meaning the Hill Train has for them. In doing so, I built relationships with the people in the villages and was invited into their homes where I patiently and with great joy captured their way of living. When reviewing all images taken and listening to the hours of audio footage captured, I gave the story the name "Transitions: Life, Love, and Movement along the Sri Lankan Hill Trains".
The project also highlights how multifaceted life is along the Hill Train lines. For example, it shows the train passing through the plantations in the mountains where Indian Tamils pluck tea leaves near the city of Hatton. It shows one of the communities they live in that was established 87 years ago. Jay-raj, the man pictured preparing tea is the community leader. He moved to the village with his wife 40 years ago. Their life has never been and still is not easy. Yet, they feel connected to the land that surrounds them although they hardly can afford to take the train they see passing by several times a day. The story also shows how the elderly Buddhist couple Maleni and her husband Walimada live in the remote village of Ohiya that was built only when the train lines where constructed. Both moved to Ohiya nearly fourty years ago as a young couple. They have been making a living working alongside the railway lines ever since. In the past, they grew flowers and potatoes in the rich soil of their land that they sold in the train or in the villages close-by. Some of their neighbors still do. Others left for the city. But Maleni and Walimada, with the help of their children, have been able to build a small guest house with two rooms where they now host tourists that stop by on their way to the nearby bio reserve. They feel their life has improved and hope for even more but eco-friendly tourism, as nature is a treasure to be protected by them. Some of the trains that are not being used anymore are home to former train track workers that share the old compartments like an apartment. In it they exchange memories of lives spent repairing the fragile mountain train tracks.
The topic of transition is very important to me as I grew up in the former East of Germany and witnessed the impact of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Borders in its various forms have therefore been a topic I researched. The train lines, when built in Sri Lanka by the British government, unified and separated people all of a sudden. These initial interests and thoughts formed the basis of a lot of research conducted before my journey along the Hill Trains.
Copyright 2018 Susann Tischendorf - All Rights Reserved -
This story would not have been possible without the guidance, friendship, and assistance of Reza Akram.