It is hot, loud and colourful: Jan Michalko spent six months living and working on the island of Sri Lanka. The outcome is a series capturing everyday life and the local culture in situational, fantastical and mysterious images.
What was it you found special about Sri Lanka?
The island of Sri Lanka is beautiful: there are palm trees everywhere; even in cities such as Colombo, for example. The vegetation is very varied and the country is marked by architecture from the fifties. In certain parts of the island, it seems as though time has stood still – which I find fascinating. The lush colours also appeal to me – whether in nature or on the street, on walls, on buses, and objects of daily life. I can perfectly easily imagine myself in a completely different world there.
What challenges does a photographer face there?
It’s hot. Incredibly hot. Sometimes the challenge is to actually leave the house in such heat, and to then be motivated to take pictures – carrying round relatively heavy equipment. Once you’re out in the heat, you need patience: when is the train getting here? When the bus? Where’s the ticket counter? Everything takes a long time there. And the most dangerous thing in Sri Lanka – like in India – is the traffic. Too many people bustling around with little space: in tuk tuks, on motorbikes, in trucks and buses. Sometimes there are accidents.
Your sister is pretty involved in the series…
My sister Monika Michalko and her family accompanied me to Sri Lanka, to Colombo, in 2018. Her husband was running a start-up project as part of an NGO, that I initially photographed for a documentation. However, I spent most of my time, from early to late, on my own taking pictures in the streets, at markets, crossroads and train stations. After a while, Monika and I worked together artistically – she’s a painter and we complement each other in form, colours and creative principles. We were inspired by life in Sri Lanka, and we shared our impressions: palm trees, scenes in shops, mosquitoes, the tropical within the urban. Monika would paint surfaces and colours, for example, which I would then pick up when out and about on my walks. Or I showed her day time photos with colourful trucks, tropical vegetation, or colonial architecture, which she then adopted in her paintings. This resulted in the In the Tropics the hair feels different exhibition.
What significance do graphics and composition have in your work?
I don’t stage my pictures; I don’t give the people any directions, but simply allow situations to arise. For this reason, I stay in one place for a long time, slowly getting to know it. I usually see the appropriate backdrop first – a colourful, patterned surface, flaking colours, funny urban graphics, lines, dabs and stains. Once this “imagined space” works for me, then the photography happens by itself. In Sri Lanka I concentrated on the shapes and the graphics in the pictures. Before that, I more or less ran after people to take their picture. Nowadays, they’re more like movie extras, they’re part of a composition. For me a good picture is when the composition is just perfect: each position, gesture interacts with the background and forefront in the photo.
What do colour express for you?
For me, colour means vivacity and is, in principle, the leitmotiv of my photographic work. I don’t photograph content. In India, when someone is cooking Chai, it’s not the tea making that’s interesting: it’s the metallic shine of the kettle, the steam, the pink torn sheet of plastic in the background, that appeal to me; the combination of shapes, colours and lines.
You used two cameras – the M240 and the M10.
The Leica M system is super; for my purposes, however, I had to help it out a bit. I modified the flash connection so that it was suitable for photography. To do this, I made a flash cable and connected it to the transmitter. I didn’t fix the transmitter to the top of the camera – as you normally do – but rather I hung it on my belt. That way I could handle the camera more easily. I positioned the flashes on small and large tripods, placed them on boxes, hung them in trees or attached them to tuk tuks, and then photographed and flashed them as they drove by. Sometimes I pressed the flash into someone’s hand, and spontaneously turned them into my assistant.
How did you come up with your approach to using a flash?
I had the idea about using flash years ago already when travelling through India. What does it do for my pictures? I just like “candy”, colourful situations and luscious hues. Using a flash has another quality as well. Glaring, bright light is eye-catching and immediately captures the attention: people turn towards you with curiosity, they’re confused somehow, and for a brief moment you stand at the centre. You can make good use of this moment of surprise; it opens a kind of small door, and reveals a special aspect of the people photographed.
Jan Michalko was born in 1975. He started out as a self-taught photographer, and was then chosen to take part in a World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass. He has travelled through Europe, Asia and other countries and regions for countless project. Michalko lives in Berlin and works as a freelance photographer with an emphasis on reportage and documentary. His work has been published and exhibited at home and abroad. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.