Snapshots from a murky war zone

British photographer Stephen Champion recalls how he captured through reel the deadly war that ruptured a peaceful Sri Lanka

Photographer Stephen Champion, a British national, lives and works in Sri Lanka by choice. When he first visited the island in 1986, the Brit observed that the onetime colony was the ideal place for a photographer to explore. After all, he was an avid traveller as well. He was intrigued by the Buddhist culture here, but the ongoing civil war at that time possibly had more pulling power, hence his extensive travels to the North and East.

He was arrested by the Sri Lankan Army and IPKF at the time when several rebel terrorist groups were fighting for autonomy in the north. He survived all and put these experiences into three books which were subsequently published. When this writer met Stephen at his rented out house in Aruppala, Kandy, he was more than willing to share his experiences in his adopted country.

Stephen is a man who lives in the present moment. He began talking about the heavy traffic in Kandy and man’s war against nature. The guy drove home a point very early in the conversation. “Whether it’s civil war or war against nature, we are all in it together,” he affirmed.

He is British, but he never assumed authority during the conversation. He was more than happy to have me as a guest at his home and offered me a cup of tea as he began unfolding his story in Sri Lanka which began 30 years ago.

Stephen Champion
Stephen Champion

Armed with a Masters Degree in photography, Stephen did portrait photography in London for a living. But there was something missing in what he did as a photographer in London. His passion for travelling offered him an escape route. He went to the East.

His travels possibly gave him enough picture opportunities. But the eagerness to explore the world more took him to Asia. He first came to Sri Lanka and much later travelled to India and Nepal. He observed that conflict situations were pulling his heartstrings more than anything else. The photographs he took during the JVP uprising and the government’s war against terrorism went into a book titled War stories in Sri Lanka. His experiences went into two other books, ‘Dharmadeepa’ and ‘Colours of Change’.
Stephen had many close calls, photographing the civil war in the North. “Once, a cross-fire bullet almost missed me and on one occasion, the IPKF arrested me. But they (IPKF) let me go saying it was a terrible mistake after identifying me,” said Stephen.
The photography method he used in the conflict zone merits mention. “You must be the first to get there and leave before you are noticed,” said Stephen, with a cheeky smile adding, “But there were days when I cried like anybody else in the war zone, because the terror and the memory of lost lives were so hard to bear.”

What he wanted to do was show how the conflict was unfolding in the island. He said he didn’t have an agenda and didn’t take sides. That would have been pretty hard to believe because the government authorities categorized everybody, including the media, either to be on the side of the government security forces or the separatist rebels. I was almost convinced that Stephen was a genuine curious photographer till he made a statement which sent into oblivion any iota of doubt if there was one that he was a ‘plant’ put here by some western power.

“I didn’t want to sell my photographs to a foreign agency, because I wanted to retain my independence,” he said. What really underscored the genuineness of this man and also made me think he was one of us was the answer he gave to the question, ‘Do you consider yourself lucky to survive to tell your story?’ “I was privileged to be part of the civil war where everybody was struggling for survival,” was his answer.

Stephen has a pleasing smile and a personality to go. More than anything, he has wit. Once he was in a rebel-controlled area, and he had a golden opportunity to take a picture of a group of terrorists who were guarding a checkpoint. “When my moment came… I waved at them laughing and smiling as if I was a bit crazy, a bit like what you see confused tourists doing from time to time and took a photo. Waved, laughed, smiled and went. In the background there had been a plateless white van!” he smiled. But he admitted that the LTTE was far difficult to deal with, compared to the Sri Lankan Army whom he termed was reasonable. “The LTTE never allowed you to go alone. They never let you out of their sight if they allowed you to take pictures inside a rebel-controlled area,” he reminisced.

My next question was whether he wished to photograph LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. “I never dreamed of photographing anybody. The pictures had a way of finding me. Of course Prabhakaran would have been moving in the areas I was photographing. He was incognito. He became invisible after 2006. He became God-like. You know what I mean,” he reflected.

In 2008, he published a book ‘War stories from Sri Lanka’. But the war was not yet over. By that time no local, nor any foreigner for that matter, was allowed into the war zone. Prabhakaran was behaving like a mad man and instead of sticking to guerilla warfare made the blunder of directly engaging the Sri Lanka Army.

The North was one hell of a battlefield and Sri Lanka by then was deemed an unsafe destination for tourists. There was one point during Stephen’s stay here that he decided he didn’t want to leave. The government security forces were bulldozing their way into enemy territory. Amidst the disruption that was taking place in one corner of the island, Stephen was planning his next move.
To be continued…

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