By Charlie Allen
From photographing actors and famous writers to documenting Sri Lankan history, Stephen Champion talks about this life and reflects on his experiences in the war zone.
Stephen Champion. Image by Stephen Champion.
“I grew up in a farm in Surrey, and saw lambs being born and the realities of nature. It didn’t prepare me for my first experience of carnage but nothing does.” says Stephen Champion, 54, a photographer who lives in Central London.
Once a photographer of famous writers, artists and actors for magazines such as City Limits in the 1980’s, Champion now focuses on Sri Lanka which he has been documenting for the last 28 years. “I was absorbed straight away.” His first visit was in 1988.
He was always drawn to photography and studied a BA degree at Bournemouth Arts Institute. With no A levels, he was taken on as “special case” by the university due to his travel experiences. “I Hitchhiked around South Africa with only a vegetable knife at 16 years old for the adventure and I traveled all around the world.” he continues.
He then did his Masters degree in San Francisco where Champion focused on portraits, often capturing drama in unusual situations.
“An artist friend called me to come over when she was splitting up with her boyfriend. I was working with an old 1959 Rolleicord baby camera and it resulted in a picture of her with her left breast fully exposed – her white skin and red nipple hanging out with the boyfriend grabbing it for her not to leave.”
He returned to England and photographed various famous artists including playwright Alan Ayckbourn, Swiss harpist Andrea Vollenweider, writer Howard Jacobson, and actress Lindsay Duncan. His last portrait was of actor Gerard Depardieu. “I photographed him curled up in a duvet with his head poking out. He was a sensitive big soul.”
Gerard Depardieu by Berned Bujold
For the next 22 years he lived in Brixton. “Those days were very lucrative. I was living the life of Bohemia, loads of people did it in the 80’s. That was the beauty of that time, we haven’t got it now and we’ll never get it back.”
But a visit East opened him up to a whole new journey. His plans were to visit India – but this didn’t happen until 10 years later. “I’ve never published that work. Sri Lanka is where my work is. The story is in Sri Lanka. The further I went in the more genuine it seemed.”
“It went from heaven to hell in a day. I worked with the connection between nature and the traditional culture. I saw those things being eroded. I have recorded the history – not only the conflict – but the good times, the bad times, and the great change.”
With striking images of the Sri Lankan landscape, his work also shows much darker images showing the brutality of war. “My pictures are understated. I think the narrative explodes in the pictures. “One of the most powerful pictures from the conflict is called A Shop Full of Corpses. It’s of the Batticaloa Market Massacre of 1990.” Champion continues, “It shows blood dripping from the door. It was very brutal but in a very simple way. I was arrested when I took it because it’s evidence of the killings.
Aftermath of Bombing, Jaffna 1988 53. Copywright Stephen Champion
“In 1986 I saw a bomb drop onto a line of people waiting outside the cinema. I went to hospital to check up on them and there was a floor of blood. I remember sitting down for 20 minutes and crying, and I couldn’t do anything. Then, I picked myself up and did my job.”
But Champion had to deal with death and disaster regularly on his trips and his photos often show tragedy in the most simplest of ways. “The brain deals with it. I am not a clever photographer and I work from my heart. Spectacular things often don’t work for me.
“It’s funny the way children deal with death. They giggle and they never lose a gaze when they’ve been traumatized. It does something to little children that we as adults see in a different light.”
Colours of Change
Champion has published various books including Lanka, Darmadeepa and War Stories. His latest exhibition, Colours of Change, takes place from 18th April until 22nd June at The Brunei Gallery.
The exhibition boasts 82 images altogether, only 30 used from his books. “Colours of Change shows romantic photographs of yesterday and today’s modern and increasingly polluted world. My journey was the conflict and the change in the landscape.”
Want to hear how the exhibition is going? Listen below for interviews with people who attended the private viewing:
Young labourer, Hakmana 1989. Copyright Stephen Champion
By the late 1980’s, Champion says, you could no longer find a house made of leaves or a hand molded interior made so water would easily flow out of the house. “It suddenly disappeared after 2,500 years. Some places are not recognizable. There are lots of concrete blocks now. The country has physically changed. There is no identity, it’s not like India.”
“Women don’t wear saris, there is no transport. It is cut off from the western world, and caught in a time warp. But it is quite charming as there is no pollution. The end of war destroyed a lot – the Tamil people and their psyche.” Champion continues.
“Sri Lanka is a gentle country, there are little hills not big mountains, it’s not boiling hot it’s warm. There are no extremes and I think that’s why it’s more apparent when something destroys it. It’s a very pretty place but has the most vicious things happen to it.”
Stream of Thought
Champion visits Sri Lanka several times a year for around two months at a time covering up to 7000 km each trip. “I’m celebrating now, and not harping on about the past. I have come to understand the working of things more and have no judgement to make. I hope my work is a good stream of thought for people. It’s a document and retrospective. I’ve never looked back.”
Being a photographer doesn’t pay the bills, says Champion. “I don’t even get paid enough to pay council tax. I sold my house in Brixton seven years ago and I used that to live on.” His work and books are self-funded and he has given up a lot to make ends meet. “ I’ve re-invested in myself and my work. I was very fond of good food, then I had to learn to become a very good cook!
“When you see the show you’ll ask yourself is it worth another look? If it takes you on that journey, then I’m succeeding.” Visit his website: http://www.stephenchampion.org/
Stephen Champion (right) and John Hollingsworth, the exhibition manager (left) at Colours of Change private viewing. Image by Charlie Allen