"36 Sri Lankan elders"About the ‘I Am’ project

Was there a time when people in Sri Lanka didn’t describe themselves as Tamil or Sinhalese? Or as Muslims or Burghers?

Or when these identities weren’t foremost in their minds.

In Sri Lanka today, one’s ethnicity is likely to be paramount. “I am Tamil” or “I am a Sinhala Buddhist”. When I returned to the island nation of my birth in 2005, I observed how conflict and ethnicity were inextricably linked.

I don’t remember much about growing up in Jaffna, just fragments of memories, like watching clips of Super 8 video, the colors muted, the images spliced together randomly and blown out by the sun. I remember walking to my first school and the temple near our home. A huge water tank with mossy steps of emerald green. My family would take me to bathe there sometimes. I remember eating ice cream to cool us down, a special treat on a scorching day. I remember the smell and taste of hot peanuts and popcorn served up in a twisted newspaper during the temple festivals. Family members were also neighbors in this tight-knit society, peaceful and safe. When we were taken care of by aunts and uncles who lived across the road. Now many of these relatives live thousands of miles away, scattered around the world when war took hold.

As I put down new roots in the country of my birth, I began to understand that an entire community couldn’t be blamed for the actions of a few or of its government. I began to write about my experiences at the checkpoint, but also these other discoveries for a radio program, and it was cathartic. Slowly, Colombo began to feel like home.

An anthropologist once told me that a long time ago Sri Lankans, or the Ceylonese as they were known then, were more likely to talk to you about their kith and kin connections, what they did for a living or their hometowns when describing themselves. So with this in mind, I set off on a journey seeking a generation of Sri Lankans who were from that time or perhaps remembered those days.

"wise men and women"I visited churches, kovils, temples and mosques and was welcomed into people’s homes and workplaces. I traveled by plane, by road and by boat. I met and photographed elders; many wise men and women who trusted me with their life stories. They shed light on my questions and I grew more convinced that reflecting on the shared experiences of elders was on way to moving towards reconciliation in this conflict. The ‘I Am’ project was born — a collection of portraits in photography and sound capturing the experience and insights of Sri Lankan elders. I hoped that people would engage with these portraits of community, identity, and coexistence, and move them towards reconciliation. I also wanted to encourage those I met on my journey to tell others about the project, and in turn, to tell their own stories.

Through the wisdom of wonderful elders, the I Am project seeks to challenge perceptions of identity and explore how this could help bring communities together. This was my journey of discovery and I hope that my own transformation through engaging with these stories will help others do the same.

Kannan Arunasalam

November 2009
Concept, creation, curation

“For viewers halfway around the world, “I Am” offers both a rich portrait of a region through the eyes of its elders, as well as a reminder of how, when racial or ethnic differences are put in the foreground, they overshadow both public and private life. Kannan Arunasalam is a Sri Lankan-born artist who grew up in London and returned to his home country in 2005. His project “I Am” (2010-12), which includes video and a website, uses the diary form to interview elders in Sri Lanka, particularly as people from different ethnic groups are ejected from the country, causing strife and transformation. The driving question for Mr. Arunasalam, as he says on the project’s website, is: “Was there a time when people in Sri Lanka didn’t describe themselves as Sinhalese or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher? Or at least when these identities weren’t foremost in their minds?”
A Review of ‘Dear Diary: Update on All’, Martha Schwendener, New York Times, 7 February 2014 in connection with the I Am project exhibit at the Neuburger Museum of Art, N.Y.

10 portraits from the “I Am” project were exhibited at Summer Hall, as part of Colombo Art Biennale’s Edinburgh Fringe ”Return: In Search of Sillness” joint exhibition from 2 August to September 2017: “Other highlights in the documentarian vein include BBC and Al Jazeera featured UK–SL filmmaker Kannan Arunnasalam’s shorts on diverse Sri Lanka.”

“Kannan Arunasalam is a Sri Lankan-born British journalist and filmmaker. He’s created an oral history project to preserve the memories and stories of Sri Lanka’s elderly from different regions, communities and walks of life. He tells us why he started the project and what he discovered about Sri Lanka – it’s past and present – by listening to the people who have known the country longest. He is joined by Priyath Linyanage, Editor of the BBC’s Sinhala language service who shares his thoughts on some of the stories recorded for the project.” Interview with BBC 5th Floor about the I Am project
“That Kannan is succeeding in this is evident. Aside from the many views on his website, his work will reach new audiences as part of the 8th Aljazeera International Documentary Festival 2012 and Film South Asia 2012. He was also part of the just concluded Colombo Art Biennale. Linking them all thematically is Kannan’s great obsession – an exploration of the shifting Sri Lankan identity. His own family’s circumstances and choices have made these stories deeply personal for Kannan, particularly the series titled ‘Longing and Belonging: Diaspora Shorts,’ available on the website Groundviews. But it is his ‘I Am’ series which absorbs him now. The first set introduced 36 narrators from Jaffna, Kandy and Galle and began with the filmmaker’s determination to explore the answers to this one question: was there a time when people in Sri Lanka didn’t describe themselves as Sinhalese or Tamil, Muslim or Burgher?” Telling their stories, Kannan Arunasalam speaks to Smriti Daniel about his endeavour to record narratives from a fast disappearing Sri Lanka, Smriti Daniel, The Sunday Times, February 26, 2012
“Among the photographers/filmmakers, Kannan Arunasalam’s ‘I Am’ stood out at Park Street Mews, for the arresting composition of images, fine sense of tonal and descriptive detail, evocative voice overs and choice of subjects for his short photo-biographical essays. We were deeply moved by his emerging portrait of this troubled country we sat uncomfortably at home in.” Becoming Biennale, Dr Pradeep Jeganathan and Dr Malathi De Alwis, The Nation, February 26, 2012
“Kannan Arunsalam wants people to rethink the ideas on identity and talk about the concept in a more constructive way. He hopes people will be drawn to the project because it is talking about their home towns and ultimately see the bigger picture. “I am hoping that the message that was created in this project will help people to see something that goes a bit deeper into issues, through different eyes.” Kannan Arunasalam appreciates the connections he has made and he describes it as a lovely gesture that the nun Sister Pushpam Gnanapragasam from the project continues to write him letters. “I like the idea of keeping in touch with them, I think it is important. Sometimes people take a story that is really valuable and personal and then disappear. That is not right.” A journey beyond ethnic identity, Maya Bille and Nadine Wardell, Sunday Island, March 5, 2011
“I Am – beautiful multimedia project by Kannan Arunasalam captures portraits of Sri Lanka’s regional identity in sound and image through the stories of Sri Lankan elders, a follow-up to Arunasalam’s video portraits of resilience in Sri Lanka.” Explore, A discovery engine for meaningful knowledge, fueled by cross-disciplinary curiosity. A Brain Pickings project edited by Maria Popova in partnership with Noodle.
“Meanwhile, young photographer and filmmaker Kannan Arunasalam has been traversing the island to capture memories of Lankan elders on cultural identity. Kannan was curious to know if there was a time when Lankans didn’t describe themselves solely as Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher. He interviewed elders from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and shares their oral histories on the ‘I Am’ website (http://iam.lk). The project has gathered 30,000 Facebook followers and has had over 330,000 page views. But more than these numbers, Kannan says, personal messages of support from followers along the journey have made the initiative worthwhile. “I hope that my own transformation through engaging with these narratives will help others do the same, and ultimately bring communities together.” Against the fall of memory…, Nalaka Gunawardene, Ceylon Today, 28 July 2013
“When Kannan Arunasalam began the I Am project it was as an exploration of his own identity and his Jaffna roots. It came, says Kannan with a realisation that his identity, like that of many other Sri Lankans, was multi-faceted and complex and that this needed to be celebrated. The project then grew from there, covering elders from Kandy, Jaffna and Galle in the first series and then expanding in the second to include many from Batticaloa, Colombo and Negombo. In total 45 elders have been featured on the site, but Kannan has met and photographed many more. “At the end of the project, there will be 72 elders on the site, but there are many more on the Facebook page and I hope ones that the followers will submit for the competition.” The competition he is speaking of is his attempt to engage the I Am followers on Facebook and Twitter. Kannan is asking for submissions – portraits of inspirational elders accompanied by their story told in less than 50 words. The winner will receive a prize from Nikon courtesy Photo Technica worth Rs. 20,000 and will be featured on the iam.lk site. ‘It could be your grandfather, the man on the street or a Sri Lankabhimanya!’ writes Kannan. He’s excited to see what the competition will produce. “I really want I Am’s followers to contribute, to get inspired by the project and to go out and capture the stories of elders around them. These narratives are disappearing and I want Sri Lankans, especially the younger generation, to value their importance.” ‘Who I Am’ website goes places with faces, Sunday Times Plus, 13 February 2013

© 2010-2012 Kannan Arunasalam. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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