My first trip to Sri Lanka in the early 1980s was for a new guidebook. It was my first book assignment and a lot was riding on how well I did.
As it turned out, the country was a photographer’s paradise. I also happened to be there for the biggest religious event of the year, the Kandy Perahera. This festival takes place over several days in which a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha is honoured in a series of spectacular nighttime processions by elaborately costumed elephants accompanied by hundreds of dancers and musicians. The parade is lit by a phalanx of men carrying burning coconut lanterns and attended by throngs of local devotees and visitors from all over the world.
My delight soon turned to disappointment though as I tried to capture all the incredible nighttime festivities on slow Kodachrome 64 film. I did my best, but I came up short. I just couldn’t capture the magical spirit of the event properly.
Six months after my book came out the Tamil Tigers began a civil war that lasted 26 years. Not surprisingly tourism fell off a cliff and most guidebooks, including mine, went out of print for lack of sales.
Fast forward to 2011. The civil war finally concluded with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and tourists cautiously started to head back. Islands magazine in the US approached me to photograph a story on the country and what immediately came to my mind was the fabulous Perahera Festival and how badly I had covered it thirty years previously. By now though, Kodachrome film was no longer being made and I had in my possession the latest digital cameras with advanced sensors that could capture super low light levels. Perhaps I could redeem myself this time around.
I told the whole sorry story to my editor at Islands and pleaded for extra time to cover the festival. With his blessing, I journeyed back to the central hill town of Kandy in Sri Lanka and booked a room in the Queens Hotel that overlooked the parade route.
I found that the festival itself hadn’t changed much in thirty years. It was still lit by men holding lanterns of burning coconuts walking beside the performers but in a small nod to modernity the elephants now had tiny battery powered LED lights attached to their robes.
Even with my new super sensitive digital cameras the low light photography proved a challenge. Burning coconuts just don't throw off a lot of light. Shutter speeds were still low for energetic dancers and moving elephants but image stabilizing lenses helped as did a judicious use of flash. In the end though I experimented with different techniques and shot generously to get the coverage I needed. So finally, thirty years on, I found 'closure' on my Perahera Festival photography.