It is often said that such and such a person needs no introduction, and in Dominic Sansoni’s case that’s probably about as true as it gets. Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent photographer – he refers to himself as “essentially a thief” – is now into the fifth decade of a career which has seen him specialise in [...]


The one that got away – Dominic Sansoni

In the first of a new series, A.S.H. Smyth interviews the renowned Sri Lankan photographer on the greatest photograph he never took... and one he did

Dominic Sansoni and the dream island shot. Pic by A.S.H. Smyth

It is often said that such and such a person needs no introduction, and in Dominic Sansoni’s case that’s probably about as true as it gets.

Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent photographer – he refers to himself as “essentially a thief” – is now into the fifth decade of a career which has seen him specialise in travel, documentary photography and portraiture. His news photography has  featured in the pages of numerous international publications, including AsiaWeek, Der Spiegel and the BBC (covering the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, the JVP riots of the late 1980s, and the earlier phases of the war against the LTTE), and his commissioned work has illustrated various travel guides, volumes on the Bawa school of tropical architecture, and high-quality hardbacks published by the likes of Laurence King and Thames & Hudson, the most recent of which is Sri Lanka: the Island from Above (with Richard Simon and Sebastian Posingis).

He is currently – and especially during the recent lockdown – working on the prototype of what he calls ‘The Ceylon Memory Project’: “I’m a total amateur, doing something badly. But what to do?” At the time of writing, someone has just walked into his office, bearing the personal photo album of Anagarika Dharmapala. And all this against the context of also being the Director of Barefoot (where – full disclosure – I have been recently employed as sometime quizmaster).

Much more importantly, though, the concept of ‘The One That Got Away’ originated, several years ago, during a Robert Knox-themed road trip with none other than Dominic Sansoni, when I asked him (it was a long drive) to tell me about a time when he had failed to capture a particular image. Alas, now, neither of us can recall his answer. But I thought it only fair to start things off by returning to the scene, no pun intended, of the crime: and so we have done – neatly, but by complete chance – with a photographic road very literally not taken. What’s more, I’d guess it’s even the same road that we were on the first time that we had this conversation.

The one that got away

‘There is something that I should have photographed, for several years, but didn’t.

It’s the road from Beragala down to Wellawaya – an old, classic, British-built road. You’re going up towards Haputale, and then there’s a fork, and you’re suddenly winding down, underneath all these lovely mara trees, and past the waterfall at Diyaluma, heading east towards Arugam Bay. It’s just a fabulously beautiful road – and I always thought that it should be recorded: “this is what this place looked like.”

They’re called pare mara, those long avenues of rain trees, pare being ‘road’ and the mara ‘tree’ [also ‘rain tree’ in English, enakvakai in Tamil, and Albizia saman f.muell. in Latin]: big, big shade trees, with that enormous girth of timber. And it was indicative of all our major highways – any roads, actually, forget highways – from here to Kandy; from here to anywhere.

This was one of the gateways to the East, and it was a beautiful road to drive, and an even better road to ride. We had a friend who had a home near Koslanda, and to just ride down there on a motorbike, y’know, when a road has a good camber, and is well designed…? It was actually even nicer to ride up. One night, as one does when you’re a little bit younger, I remember we decided to ride from Koslanda up to Beragala to eat roti, and come back.

But now it’s gone. The government has cut the trees because they’re widening the road. It’s been happening all over, which I guess in one sense is wonderful. But there was a very clear system, that worked, of planting these trees, which the British did right through the island. They provide shade, they give the road a boundary, the roots hold the banks together, and eventually – a hundred years later, a hundred and fifty years later – they provide a wonderful timber as well.

I’ve been driving that road for yonks. And, y’know, you always think “Must stop and take a picture, must stop and take a picture.” We stopped and did lots of other things! Ate food. Bought drinks. Photographed shrines. But I never took that photo of the road. I’d seen concrete telephone poles or electricity poles stacked there… and that’s a warning sign. And guess what? I’d drive through, “must do it next time,” and you don’t stop: you’re just being bloody lazy, and assuming it’ll always be there. And now it isn’t.’

The shot that he got

‘This is a photo of a Maldivian island, taken from an aeroplane, for a tourism commission in the early 1990s. I go out there, and I discover that the personal pilot for the Maldivian President is a Capt. Lokuge, from Sri Lanka. I’d met him before, so I go up to him and I tell him what I need, and he says “Dominic, no problem, I know exactly where to take you.” And then he comes back and says, “Dominic, one problem. We’re down to our last barrel and a half of fuel for the Cessna. So we have to get it done in one trip.” The Maldives was a little bit simpler then.

But he was the most brilliant pilot for an aerial photographer. In a Cessna you have to lift the wing to get a clear shot, and I swear to God, without exaggeration, I could have just kept my camera pointing out and just watched him… and click. We came back with the goodies – and those days that wasn’t just a matter of checking the back of your camera between pictures: you held your breath, you came back, you processed it, and then you prayed!

Some years later, I was sitting in England, and I don’t know how they found me, but I got a phone call from the studios making Collateral [the 2004 Tom Cruise vehicle, also starring Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith]. I think they’d seen the image on a blog, where I’d posted it. And they called and said, y’know, we’re making this film, and had I heard of the actors, and I said “Never,” and they said “We’re thinking of using your photograph for this scene in Jamie Foxx’s cab where he talks about his dream island,” and it was all very professional.

Now, this is not some Pulitzer Prize-winning photo: I must have taken thousands of photos of islands alone, in my career. This is the equivalent of them having to find a particular style of jacket for someone who’s sat in a bar, or a specific bag. And it’s just by chance that they chose mine. But they offered me a silly sum of money (I’ve chosen to forget how much) for letting them use the picture, which I was very happy to receive. And that was it. I saw the film one day, and watched the credits – but I wasn’t there.’


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